Prom 59: Toscanini or Celibidache?

Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Amériques (Revised Version)
Daphnis et Chloë – Suite No.2

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Celibidache branded Toscanini a “non-musician”. James Levine reveres Toscanini. Celibidache conducted the Munich Philharmonic from 1979 to his death in 1996. Levine is Celibidache’s successor.

The astonishing if controversial results that the Munich orchestra achieved under Celibidache can be heard on 33 EMI CDs. What is now being accomplished in Munich is anybody’s guess given this nondescript concert. Levine does know the way to seat the strings though – antiphonal violins with double basses behind the centre-left cellos. Levine’s lengthy MET tenure can be judged by regular broadcasts – certainly he has a great orchestra there – and one admires a musician who can steer a company through any one of fifty operas at the drop of a hat. His Verdi is vulgar though and he has persuaded the Munich brass to be bruisers; of course, the Bavarian orchestra is wholly professional in doing his bidding, yet one doesn’t sense a true relationship between them.

At Levine’s “long-awaited Proms debut” (more BBC spin), both Hindemith and Ravel reported the rigidity and literalism that Levine has inherited from Toscanini. Brightly-lit textures, stabbing accents – left, right, left, right… – and stinging brass complete the far-from-done deal. So much for Hindemith – questionably pitched bells in the ’Scherzo’ aside. The Ravel entered with graceless woodwind arabesques, clipped phrasing and spurious dynamics; fibres of sound clotted – no chance of internal layering let alone the luminescence this music needs. True, the ’Danse générale’ was well controlled and patiently built; it’s just a shame about the cheapening explosive contrasts therein.

Just as Barenboim has aligned himself to Furtwängler, so Levine is similarly hidebound by Toscanini’s example; conductor clones is not a good idea. When asked whom I side with, Furtwängler or Toscanini, my answer is Klemperer. I’m not sure there’s any antecedents for Levine’s lacklustre Mozart conducting that seemed to suck Alfred Brendel into giving a generalised account of the solo part; certainly he was less delving than usual. His own cadenzas were noteworthy though and his ornamentation in the latter stages of the ’Romanza’ perked the ears up; so too the hard-stick timpani if not the (expletive-deleted) mobile phone that rung forever in the first movement.

My lady companion thought the Munich Philharmonic needed “a kick up the arse” after the Mozart (her Finishing School closed down a term short!) but I think we’ll pin this on the conductor and wonder about the Boston Symphony (Levine’s the new MD there from 2004). Amériques was better. Varèse’s sonic blockbuster drew smirks from some of the audience; partly the composer’s naïve use of a siren, partly the piece’s kinship (to our ears) to film scores and perhaps the ’thump, thump’ backing tracks that pollute football highlights and those endless previews rammed down our throats on TV and Radio. Yet, Amériques is a serious piece, one potentially shocking and disturbing, a stark description of the urban jungle, of a city’s dehumanising potential. If Levine didn’t always engage with the piece’s super-structure or the fluidity of the opening music, he was in tune with the Busonian ’between states’ aspect and delivered the relentless final section with grim reality. The percussion was not always co-ordinated in a reading that grew in confidence, even if the strings were power-housed out of it by the brass. Predictable really.

For an extra, Levine led an extraordinarily static account of the Act 3 Mastersingers Prelude, Hans Sachs comatose and therefore blissfully unaware of the curdling brass tone that Levine favours. Anyone privileged to have heard Haitink’s sublime conducting of this at Covent Garden a few weeks ago when he closed his tenure would, I imagine, have been disorientated by Levine’s laggard view; it seems for him there is nothing between or behind the notes. Ironically he assumed a Celibidachian tempo. There comparisons end. From Celi the sounds would have hung in the air expectantly and resonated together sympathetically; with Levine, Wagner’s haunting nocturne was dead-in-the-water from bar one.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday, 10 September, at 2 o’clock

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