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Sunday’s Bash of the Titans

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/12/2014 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Maurizio Pollini (Pianist)
MET Orchestra, James Levine (Musc Director/Conductor)

M. Pollini (© Wikipedia)

Even in a month of the most eminent artistry, yesterday afternoon’s program in Carnegie Hall was literally a meeting of two Titans. The conductor was James Levine, yes, bound in a wheelchair but tireless, unflagging, eloquent with his hands and (presumably) his visage. The pianist was Maurizio Pollini,, for over 40 years, one of the handful of living pianists–perhaps sharing only with Goode, Perehia, Augerich, Ashkenazy,–a discernment occupying its own earthly Eden.

While Mr. Pollini had never performed with the MET until yesterday, Mr. Levine’s single-handed efforts had levitated this pit orchestra to the outstanding concert ensemble they are today. And the occasion was so special that a few critics doffed their usual bag-lady apparel to wear suit and tie, while others in the full-house audience stifled the usual coughs and phone-ringing to hang on every note.

Whatever the realistic results, this Dream Team would have won just by appearing on the same stage.

The actual results pretty well matched up to expectation. Mr. Pollini is sometimes so laser-sharp, so unerring, that one can concentrate on the technique without hearing the music. But Mozart’s 21st Concerto speaks its music so blatantly, that merely playing the notes is sufficient in itself.

As usual, Mr Pollini’s notes were without failing. That first majestic movement was played not broadly but with a marked, melody, almost a reflection of the drums and trumpets. The finale was given with that same glitter.

So inescapably we come to the now iconic Andante. And do we always really need a reference to its use in a sentimental movie to justify its greatness? Mozart doesn’t have an iota of sentiment here. This is beatific music, which is so pure that it almost transcends emotion.

Mr. Pollini hardly looked at it that way. Both he and conductor Levine did nothing to hasten or hold back the movement, and let its surface simplicity speak for its underlying pathos.

J. Levine/G. Mahler (© Michael Dwyer/AP & Wikipedia Commons)

The Mozart was majestical, and broad, and Maestro Levine was right in using the full MET orchestra. In fact with that ringing in the ears after the intermission, the first notes of the Mahler Ninth sounded rather picayune.

Those “heartbeat” notes obviously became the preface to a symphony which seemed to exhaust the whole panoply of emotions. Rather, under Mr. Levine’s hands, it became a syllogism. A mural of conflicting emotions, leading to mordant humor to a wicked “defiant’ (Mahler’s word) “Rondo-burlesque”. All of this adding together for an ending which seemed to say that these preceding feelings would inevitably lead to a spiritual conclusion.

Mr. Levine never stinted on earth or spirit. The first movement was marked not with literal pictures of bells tolling, summer and winter themes played forward. The Maestro seemed to hesitate at times. Rather than sewing up these motifs into that broad movement ending, he allowed more pauses, as if to say that Mahler himself was not ready to say that he was prepared to make a statement.

The “awkward, coarse” (again, Mahler’s words) second movement provided Mr. Levine time to utter the most paradoxical statements. His blurting horns, his winds, all combined to produce an enigma. Was this supposed to be a tribute to the old waltz form? A parody? A respite.

At the end, I could only recall Shakespeare’s parody of the loud and soft from Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you an ‘twere any nightingale.

The third movement was more brutal. But this was Mr. Levine’s mastery of orchestral magic, and full stint of percussion was used to drive home Mahler’s brutal point.

The finale produced–for some of us–a problem. What to do with a movement lasting as long as a Haydn symphony, to be played not only “Adagio”: but “Very slow and reserved”? My Solti recording has it pretty slow, but hardly reserved. Others, I have been advised, have actually rushed through it.

Mr. Levine did not take the easy way out. I don’t have a watch, but am pretty certain this lasted 33 or 34 minutes. And thus it sounded. Mr. Levine never had to grant extra rubato, for his original tempo had a palpable restraint. Not “stately-slow” like a funeral march, but with a kind of elegance. As if, while we were admiring the throbbing string tones of the MET, while we had that unexpected bassoon presentment of lower forces, while we had that same disintegration of themes like the opening movement, Mr. Levine held it all together, as if something extra-musical was occurring.

This tempo was not to everyone’s taste. Some in the audience dozed off, others sneaked looks at their program pages. But Mr. Levine’s concentration–and his artistic image–was uncompromising.

At the end, an audience which was sometimes diverted from sheer concentration had to admit (whether they felt it in their hearts or not) how fortunate we were that our own Ohio-grown Titan offered us his own vision, both titanic and spiritual.

Harry Rolnick



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