MET Orchestra/Levine in Carnegie Hall [Posthorn Serenade & Das Lied von der Erde]

Mozart
Serenade in D, K320 (Posthorn)
Mahler
Das Lied von der Erde

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) & Simon O’Neill (tenor)

The MET Orchestra
James Levine


Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton

Reviewed: 23 January, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

James Levine. Photograph: Michael LutchJames Levine’s Mozart tries to be many things all at once: stylish, sleek, articulate, lucid, plush, poised, dynamic and dramatic. The trouble is that these attributes are not always compatible, admirable though they all may be.

Levine elicited a warm, rounded tone from all sections of the MET Orchestra in the ‘Posthorn’ Serenade, shaping the music in generous, long-breathed phrases. In both the opening Allegro con spirito and the final Presto – both of which feature quite a lot of busy, fizzy figuration – he simultaneously strove for tonal richness and textural clarity, and more often than not managed to achieve an ear-pleasing balance. The finale was especially (and deliciously) effervescent, while the second Minuet (movement six) danced with buoyant grandeur. An (alas) unnamed orchestra member played the eponymous posthorn solo just a hair behind the beat, creating a charmingly unceremonious effect.

Elsewhere in the score, however, Levine had more difficulty finding a middle ground. The stateliness he seemed to be aiming for in the first Minuet came closer to overly polite stuffiness. And though Mozart’s designation for the third movement is Andante grazioso, Levine’s interpretation was more luxuriously cushy than graceful. Indeed, the passage that precedes the ‘cadenza’ was played with such heavy sumptuousness that the subsequent solos sounded anti-climactic. The ‘Rondeau’ was similarly too prettified. The subtle melodic and harmonic surprises that make this movement such a marvel were smoothed over with Zamboni-like thoroughness. Levine did paint the Andantino with some seductively dark hues, but he underplayed the music’s dramatic edginess. It was a scene worthy of Donna Anna, perhaps, but it’s Elvira’s passion that’s wanted.

Levine was considerably more successful in Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” Indeed, he made every phrase the orchestra played seem vital, essential. The autumnal hues of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ were as finely drawn as a Yuan Dynasty landscape. The youthful swagger of the horsemen in ‘Von der Schönheit’ was almost palpable; one could feel the trampling of their horse’s hooves shaking the ground.

The one real complaint, as far the orchestral part is concerned, is the conductor’s penchant for occasionally altering dynamic markings to suit his fancy. At the opening of ‘Der Abscheid’, for example, only the harps are marked forte; the other instruments are instructed to play pianissimo (with an added sforzando accent in the contrabassoon). Yet Levine had the entire ensemble playing forte. It created an arresting and ominous effect, like the ringing of a large temple bell, but it’s not what Mahler wrote.

The vocal soloists were far less satisfying. Simon O’Neill’s tone has a bright edge to it, which helped make him heard over the enormous orchestra, but it’s significantly lacking in both warmth and heft. Interpretively, too, O’Neill fell short. One of the crucial aspects of Mahler’s settings is a sense of awe inspired by the beauty of the natural world. It’s there in the first song, where the tenor sings “Das Firmament blaut ewig, und die Erde / Wird lange fest stehn und aufblühn im Lenz” (The firmament is blue eternally, and the earth / Will long stand fast and blossom in the spring). It’s also in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, when the singer hears a bird singing of spring’s arrival and confides to us: “Aus tiefstem Schauen lauscht’ ich auf” (In deepest wonder I listen). These are opportunities for the singer to make us hold our breath in astonishment; O’Neill made them ordinary.

Michelle DeYoung has an attractive voice of considerable power, though there’s a disconcerting unevenness in its middle register. And while there’s no question that her singing is emotionally engaged, she tends to sing in broad strokes, even when a subtle pen-stroke is called for. In ‘Der Einsame’ she sang the lines “Man meint’, ein Künstler habe Staub von Jade / Über dei feinen Blüten ausgestrut” (It is as though an artist had strewn dust of jade / Over the delicate blossoms) without the merest suggestion of fragility. But DeYoung had praiseworthy moments, too: most notably, her warm phrasing at the opening of ‘Von der Schönheit’, and the sense of muted rapture she conveyed in the score’s final pages.

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