Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Violin Concerto
Symphony No.9

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 23 May, 2004
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Admirers of James Levine, who has been in charge of musical matters at the Metropolitan Opera since 1976, have long been concerned about his health. That concern became more acute earlier this month when the New York Times published an article which reported some Met Orchestra members’ concerns about unexplained tremors in Levine’s left arm and leg, which the players claimed were impairing his ability to lead the orchestra effectively. Despite all the gossip and concern, Levine shows no signs of slowing down. On April 30 Metropolitan Opera general manager Joseph Volpe announced that Levine’s contract as music director had been extended to the 2010-11 season. And next season Levine will add the Boston Symphony Orchestra to his responsibilities when he begins his first season as music director.

Only one week after ending the Metropolitan Opera’s 2003-2004 season, in which he conducted three full cycles of Wagner’s Ring, Levine took the orchestra seven blocks downtown for a series of three concerts at Carnegie Hall, each with a different and demanding program, and all performed within a period of eight days. The May 16 program included Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. That of May 21 matched Strauss’s Oboe Concerto, Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, and Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

The last concert was on a particularly grand scale, with Levine leading the Met players in a highly anticipated program of Berg’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. For all the rumours and concerns about his health, Levine, conducting from a chair, as he has often done over the past four or five years, drew luminous and energetic performances that belied the concerns that have been voiced by some of his musicians.

The concert was thrilling. Combining highly refined tone with impeccably executed intonation, Christian Tetzlaff delivered a stirring and passionate performance of the Berg Concerto. He brought out all the tender lyricism and ardent warmth in this requiem for Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter, who died at the age of eighteen and to whose memory Berg dedicated the concerto. Always attentive to changing moods and textures, Tetzlaff shifted them perfectly in this performance. From the whisper-like sections in the opening Andante, through the folk inflexions of the Allegretto and the more violent moments of the Allegro, to the serene close of the final Adagio, this was a beautifully accomplished performance.

Few orchestras can match the Met’s experience with Berg’s music. Over the past decade, Berg’s operas, Lulu and Wozzeck, have frequently highlighted the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera. That experience shone through in this performance. Like Tetzlaff, James Levine and the Met players responded perfectly to the challenges of Berg’s complicated score and gave a finely detailed and emotionally engaging performance.

Following the Berg, Tetzlaff performed the Largo from Bach’s C major Sonata as an encore. His playing was gorgeous, striking a perfect balance between expressive feeling and purity of style.

The performance of Mahler’s massive Ninth Symphony was equally moving. From the opening bars to the very last measures, this was a remarkably affective reading. Levine is sometimes criticized for dragging tempos, but in this performance I found them well-balanced and sufficiently energetic. The outer movements were the most satisfactory. Levine was most faithful to Mahler’s tempo markings in the monumental first movement, creating enormous energy at the fiery climaxes. The tempos of the gently done Ländler were a bit slow, but not enough to cripple the dance elements. The Rondo-Burleske was also on the slow side, but Levine still managed to make the music come across as intense and riveting. The closing Adagio was performed at a perfect pace, stately and devotional but constantly moving forward, without any sacrifice of passion or fire. The Met Orchestra played with wonderful conviction throughout the work, with the shimmering tones of the strings deserving special praise. In sum, this was an eloquent and deeply satisfying Mahler Ninth.

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