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Deutsche Grammophon captures James Levine’s historic return to Carnegie Hall

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2013 was the year in which James Levine returned to the Metropolitan Opera after a two-year absence due to a severe injury and prolonged treatment and therapy. However, before returning to the podium in the Met’s orchestra pit, Levine conducted for the first time after his recovery on May 19, leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a symphonic concert at Carnegie Hall. He conducted from a wheelchair, which required the design of a special platform. Carnegie Hall has been the site of many “historic returns” (that of Vladimir Horowitz probably being the best known); and this return was clearly a significant occasion. That occasion was captured on audio by Deutsche Grammophon and released as a two-CD set at the end of this past September.

The fact that it was three days before Richard Wagner’s birthday probably added to the significance. Thus, while Levine prepared a program that stuck to the traditional overture-concerto-symphony format, the overture provided the first omen of his return to the Metropolitan Opera House. His choice of the opening prelude of Lohengrin was a daring one. With its delicately hushed passages for the violins in the upper register, it is music that, if not properly prepared and approached, can reduce an entire ensemble to rubble before the first 60 seconds have elapsed (which is to say, before everyone has had a chance to play).

One has to appreciate the sure hand with which Levine managed his meticulous attention to detail in this prelude. He was determined that his return would be marked by this high-wire act; and, with the final measures just as hushed as the opening, both Levine and his musicians emerged without having taken a single false step. The path from to beginning to end was clearly defined as an overall arc of an intensifying crescendo from which the decrescendo ebbs away into that sense of loss that must mark the conclusion of the entire opera. One could listen to this performance and expect great things of the opera season to come.

On the symphonic side, however, things were less promising. The concerto was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 in G major, his fourth piano concerto. The soloist was Evgeny Kissin. At the level of technique, neither soloist nor conductor could be faulted. However, even with some of Levine’s emphatic approaches to dynamics, there was what can only be described as a lack of character in the performance. This was a by-the-book reading that never compromised any of the score pages but also never really gave any indication that this was the work of Beethoven-the-music-maker, whether it involved the display of virtuosity or that capacity for wit that is so often overlooked by those who think only of Beethoven-the-monument.

That lack of attention to character was even more evident in Kissin’s decision to perform Beethoven’s Opus 129 rondo as an encore. Beethoven himself described the rondo as “quasi un capriccio” (almost a whim); yet there was little about Kissin’s approach to the score that seemed willing to honor that capriciousness. This rondo was later given the title “Rage Over a Lost Penny,” presumably by Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler, which seems to reinforce the premise that this was actually a bit of base comedy through music; but Kissin gave the impression that he was above such things and was content to use the music as a platform for rapid-fire virtuosity.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Franz Schubert’s D. 944 symphony in C major, usually called the “Great.” Here, again, Levine was dutiful and judicious in accounting for the many challenging demands imposed by Schubert, particularly his almost aggravating approach to prolongation. However, what makes that prolongation work is the way in which it builds dramatic tension.

There is a path that runs from the symphonies of Beethoven through those of Johannes Brahms and eventually arrives at those of Gustav Mahler. That path is an ascent of Everest-like proportion marked by a peak that intricately balances the logic of finely-crafted structure with expressiveness that cuts to the quick of raw emotion. D. 944 is a major “base camp” on that ascent; and one can divide conductors on the basis of how well they recognize this role that it plays. By all rights, Levine should have been aware of this (particularly in light of his past interpretations of Mahler); but this performance never really “got it,” possibly because Levine had not yet mended to a point from which he could make things work the way they really should.

Thus, while the occasion was historic and many of the omens were good, there were also clear signs that Levine was still in the process of recovery; and we can only hope that better things will emerge from both the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall.


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