Levine Takes a Cue From Carter

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Dvořák, R. Strauss, Elliott Carter, Schumann: Anna Netrebko (soprano), The MET Orchestra, James Levine (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York City. 8.2.2015 (BH)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Dvořák: “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka
Strauss: “Cäcilie,” Op. 27, No. 2
Elliott Carter: Three Illusions for Orchestra
Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61

James Levine has long been a champion of the late Elliott Carter, whose Three Illusions for Orchestra might serve as a microcosm of this prototypical Levine program with the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Carter’s output often has unrelated events careening into each other with the expertise of a wizard, and these short pieces, completed late in his life, have sparkle, daring, and the ethereal touch of a man who knows his way around an orchestra. In the first of the three, “Micomicón,” sustained string lines are punctuated by brass and winds; then the forces seem to exchange places. The second, “Fons Juventatis,” might be my favorite, a bubbly froth derived from the myth of Jupiter creating a fountain of youth—which Carter wrote when he was in his mid-90s. Including the third, “More’s Utopia,” the whole set grows more interesting with each hearing, especially done with such glittering exactitude.

Superstar soprano Anna Netrebko, filling in on short notice for an ailing Elina Garanca, was magnificent in Dvořák’s “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka. Only a few measures in, her radiant voice easily filled the hall, blooming extravagantly, and shot past like a meteor in the composer’s soaring climaxes. Equally impressive was Richard Strauss’s “Cäcilie,” and both had sumptuous work from the orchestra. It may seem like carping to wish Netrebko had sung another 20 minutes or so, but that seems ungrateful, given that she had just sung Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at the Metropolitan Opera the previous evening.

Bookending these were Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2—a fine, if occasionally slightly scrappy reading, but one filled with muscularity and propulsion. The concluding Schumann Second Symphony, however, might have been the prize of the afternoon. More accurately played than the Beethoven, the result played to Levine’s strengths: superb phrasing and balance, a talent for pinpointing exactly the right tempi, and the ability to frame the big moments—and nail them. The skittering Scherzo gave the violins a ticklish workout, and the slow movement theme, when it returned, was heartbreaking. As a friend said, Levine has the uncanny ability to find what feels like exactly the right tempo. The entire piece demonstrated Levine’s expert ability to illuminate structure—and the talent and skill of these equally expert players to give him what he imagines.

Bruce Hodges

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