Returning for Encores: Kissin and Levine at Carnegie Hall

Schoenberg, Chopin, Brahms: Evgeny Kissin (piano), James Levine (conductor), MET Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 10.4.2011 (BH)

Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor

Brahms: Symphony No. 2

On this afternoon at Carnegie Hall, any nervousness from audience members about this concert’s music director, James Levine, must have dissipated shortly after he and the MET Orchestra hurled themselves into Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. Levine’s much-publicized health issues seemed completely in the background – well, almost, since he was using a wheeled walker that allowed him rather astonishing speed crossing the stage, and then a cane to help him reach his chair on the podium. With Levine’s performances of Wozzeck at the Met still in my ears, the Schoenberg, which Levine conducts as incisively as anyone alive, had astonishing energy. Each phrase, each brush of color, each rhythmic cell – all seemed to spring to life, buoyed by internal logic and coupled with the spectacular playing of the ensemble. I joked with a friend about it, but yes, I was humming passages on the way home.

This energy was wisely kept in check for Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, with the peerless Evgeny Kissin as soloist. Given that the orchestral parts here are (to put it diplomatically) secondary to some of the hurdles awarded the pianist, Levine kept the ensemble at a discreet distance, allowing Kissin’s meticulous technique to take center stage. His technical abilities, with nary a note out of place, really have to be heard to be believed. (For more evidence, please see Stan Metzger’s review of Kissin’s Liszt recital last month.) I found his playing mesmerizing; others weren’t sold and used the word “heartless.” Nevertheless, the vast majority of the audience would not be denied an encore, and Kissin gave a generous one: Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, in which, if anything, he showed even more sensitivity, fire and polish than he did in the concerto.

Levine concluded with a joyous account of Brahms’s Second Symphony exactly as one wants to hear it: now beguiling, now incendiary, with every instrument in the orchestra seemingly vying for “most gorgeous playing.” Tempi seemed exactly right: relaxed but not sluggish, and Levine’s arching hand gestures only underlined his ability to show the beginning, end, and heart of a phrase, every one artfully constructed. Each movement was an adventure on its own, yet each was carefully shaped to fit within the whole.

Given Levine’s recent cancellations – his resignation from his post at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and subsequent bowing out from some Met productions – these concerts at Carnegie Hall are events to be treasured. This spring he saved some of his energies specifically to lead performances of Wozzeck and Die Walküre, but I hope he also plans to shepherd some of his future battery power for afternoons like this one.

Bruce Hodges