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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Concert Review: Racing Into the Light

James Levine conducts Mahler's Symphony No. 7.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Levine, triumphant, rolls onto the stage of Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera/The MET Orchestra.
The symphonies of Gustav Mahler are marathon works, an important test for any conductor eager to show his command of complex orchestration and vast marching forces of sound. On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine gave his first Mahler performance since his two-year absence from conducting duties. The program: the orchestral Songs of a Wayfarer and the Symphony No. 7, the most mysterious and misunderstood work of the composer's catalogue.

Opera, not symphony remains the central focus of Mr. Levine's career. But an incomplete cycle of Mahler symphonies made between 1974 and 1980 attests to his command and sweep of this composer's music. (The historical fact of Mahler's two seasons as music director of the Met makes performing his works an imperative duty for the conductor leading the MET Orchestra.) This concert would be his first attempt at one of these Himalaya-like symphonies since his illness and injury, an arduous proposition for a maestro currently limited to conducting from a wheelchair atop a specially-built motorized podium.

Mr. Levine may be limited physically, but his clear musical mind and remarkable stamina were very much in evidence on Sunday afternoon. It began with an account of the Songs of a Wayfarer, early orchestral lieder that contain the melodic seeds of the composer's early works. They were rendered with color and detail by the imposing Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, who captured the contrasting, contradicting emotions of despair and joy that lies at the heart of these songs. Familiar melodies ("Ging heut Morgen übers Feld" is the main theme of the first movement of the First Symphony) were played with passion and sweep, the Met musicians responding ably to their boss's every gesture.


The Seventh ends a trio of instrumental symphonies (with the Fifth and Sixth) that comprise Mahler's "middle" creative period. It is a program symphony without a specific written synopsis: a five-movement journey from darkness to light, filled with a wealth of rich, naturalistic detail along the way. A strange, shuddering rhythmic figure and a mournful call from the tenor horn started t
he first movement, launching the listener on a phantasmagorical journey in the dark. As Mahler pushed the envelope of orchestral expression to depict a nocturnal landscape, Mr. Levine opted for brisk, energetic tempos and a limpid orchestral sound that allowed hidden leitmotifs, quotations and musical in-jokes (including references to both Wagner and Strauss) to emerge with the utmost clarity.

The three central movements continue the "night" theme, with Nos. 2 and 4 labeled "Nachtmusik" by the composer. The central movement is the scherzo. Nachtmusik I was taken at a brisk Andante, a mysterious patrol that seemed to transform Carnegie Hall into a dark meadow high in the Alps, with soldiers moving stealthily through strange terrain with the occasional flare of a match and stars the only light. The twitter of winds and subtle percussion (including Alpine cowbells) recalled ideas from the Third Symphony, put together here in a strange new way.

The nocturnal ramble yielded to the Scherzo, marked Schattenhaft or "shadow-like." This is a ghostly, whirling dance of the un-dead, with unusual percussion and skittering strings. This was Mahler at his most ghoulish and graphic, with moans and sighs from the violins answered by mysterious chords from the lower strings and muted brass, punctuated by jolts of timpani. Nachtmusik II was tender and romantic, with water imagery and elegant solos for guitar and mandolin establishing the tranquil mood. Mr. Levine maintained a perfect balance here, with the plucked string instruments clearly audible against the ensemble.

Composer and conductor gleefully shattered that peace in the last movement, which combines rhythmic and harmonic ideas from all of the first four movements in a blaze of orchestral "daylight." The C Major key rings out boldly, with the brass blazing away in a theme that is a direct hommage to the opening fanfare of Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Thanks to the detail and clarity of the first four movements, this strange finale made musical sense, with each turn of the Rondo reworking and reconstructing the musical material that had gone before. At last it was time to return to the symphony's opening rhythms, the hard-charging first subject of the Allegro, transformed into the triumph of light over shadow.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.