S&H Concert Review

Mozart, Berg, Tchaikovsky: Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/James Levine, Barbican 28 November, 2000. (MB)

James Levine, famously the world's most expensive conductor, is an infrequent visitor to Britain. The Munich Philharmonic, of which Levine has been chief conductor since 1999, is probably an even less frequent visitor to these shores. The combination proved magical - with Levine drawing from the orchestra intensely colourful playing in a challenging programme that spanned the seriousness of Mozart's 39th Symphony to Berg's catastrophic Op. 6, Three Pieces for Orchestra.

To hear this great orchestra under one of the most charismatic of conductors persuaded me that Levine is indeed one of the finest conductors working today, an opinion that I suspect is not shared by many.

I have never heard a performance of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique which concentrated so hard on breathing individuality into this symphony's woodwind phrases, counterbalancing the separated string writing and generating such fury and electricity into the first movement's contrasted terrain. It was in turns bitter and passionate, lyrical and frightening. Levine's performance of the Berg was as emotionally draining as expected - although whether Levine felt the same sense of catharsis that Herbert von Karajan felt after conducting this 20 minute work is debatable. He certainly showed no signs of exhaustion - emotional or physical.

The concert did not perhaps start on a high note. Levine's performance of Mozart's E flat symphony proved at times ostentatiously laboured - the opening chords, for example, were almost brought to a state of stasis, so heavy was the phrasing (even with a significantly reduced string section). But this was a surprisingly intimate performance - not as brutal as some I have heard - and one that while mannered in places did not entirely lack sparkle. The Minuet was anything but heavy, alert and fleet. Overall, however, it seemed considerably longer than its half-hour time span - always a sign that not everything was quite right.

The Berg, which closed the first half, was almost perfectly realised. The textures, often dense in this piece - and no more so than in the final Marsch - were often translucent and given a wonderful clarity of purpose and development. The taxing percussion writing, the startling division of string syncopation and the sense of impending catastrophe this work needs were all finely balanced. When the work ended under a dark cloud of panic and disintegration you full sensed you had travelled far to get there.

The truly astonishing performance was of Tchaikovsky's last symphony. If there had previously been any doubts that perhaps Celibidache's great orchestra had lost that glorious breadth of tone and expressiveness that make this orchestra so spellbinding they were quickly dispelled. From the brooding bassoon which crawled out of the depths of dark strings to the hushed, dying end of the work this was a spellbinding performance. This is such a direct work that almost any approach to it will work - and Levine is more direct than most. There is nothing superficial about his interpretation - and certainly none of the heart-on-sleeve emotion that Bernstein attached to this work. There is no exaggeration, no distortion and a healthy observance of Tchaikovsky's dynamic balance. This was as much an interpretation which weighed the intellectualism of this symphony against its marked metronome balances. Where many conductors are deaf and blind to Tchaikovsky's conception of this work, Levine's performance had an omniscience and clarity of voice that was refreshing. His allegro third movement was sublime and produced spontaneous applause from many in the audience. His adagio was fleet, but lacked no passion whatsoever.

The Munich Philharmonic responded magnificently - strings were extraordinarily velvety (particularly basses placed on the far left of the stage) as were violas and cellos which emerged from the centre of the orchestra like lava erupting from the neck of a volcano. Brass, horns in particular, were note perfect - and exuded a confidence one rarely hears in even the greatest orchestras. The principle flute, clarinet and bassoon were all superlative, giving their solos stunning vocal power.

This was exceptional music making and clearly enjoyed by a packed Barbican. I look forward to hearing this thrilling partnership again.

Marc Bridle

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