December 26, 2013 12:03 pm

MET Orchestra/Levine, Carnegie Hall, New York – review

The energetic but sensitive James Levine conjured Mahler both nuanced and explosive

James Levine keeps on rolling. Literally.

Having survived a two-year hiatus during which he coped with numerous physical crises, he now finds himself confined to a motorised wheelchair. Still, he isn’t exactly taking it easy.


IN Music

Fresh from conducting Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera, he brought his mighty orchestra to Carnegie Hall for an ultra-demanding afternoon of Mahler. If he found the effort strenuous, his energy and concentration suggested nothing of the sort.

The concert began with the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, sung with heroic pathos, also intimate subtlety, by Peter Mattei. The baritone seemed unfazed by an extraordinarily slow tempo for the first song, “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht”, and he projected increasing despair with economic nuance as the cycle progressed. Ever sensitive, Levine knew exactly when to lead and when to follow. It was shattering.

So, in its very different way, was Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which exploded after the interval. The piece deals in sensory overload über Alles, rambling and rumbling with shameless bombast, piling climax upon climax, only occasionally pausing for folksy/jaunty contrast or gentle reflection. Levine sustained clarity against most odds, and the MET Orchestra – an ensemble that seldom confronts a challenge like this – brought virtuosic flair to virtually every cry and, yes, virtually every whisper. The brass blared with staggering bravado, and the wildest paroxysms made relative sense in the broadest of interpretive contexts.

Other conductors and other orchestras may attend to the expressive sprawl with greater concern for dynamic detail. Some may give restraint a higher priority. But few convey such propulsive grandeur or exude such infectious pride.

Not even this conductor can make Mahler’s endlessly indulgent rhetoric seem inevitable. The composer wove too many detours into the gnarled fabric to support conventional logic. Still, Levine kept the exposition reasonably taut, the rough places reasonably plain. He reached the final resolution of this intrinsically unwieldy marathon in 82 minutes. Somehow it seemed like only 75.

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