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Intimations of Immortality

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/17/2008 -  
Anton Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K.491
Alban Berg: Three Orchestral Pieces, Opus 6
Richard Strauss: Final Scene from "Salome"

Alfred Brendel (Piano), Deborah Voigt (Soprano)
The MET Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor)

God has to be fuming this morning. Yesterday afternoon, He stood outside Carnegie Hall with the multitudes, begging for an extra ticket, but it was hopeless. On the other hand, He probably heard it all before, since this was a concert which had to have been organized (and hopefully rehearsed) in Paradise itself. Who (and where) else could put together such an unearthly combination, starting with the earth’s finest Straussian singing, the one opera before Strauss became a virgin? Or a legendary Classical pianist playing Mozart? And a conductor who single-handedly resurrected a once moribund opera orchestra, clarifying music by two of the last century’s most difficult composers?

Thus, not a seat in the house even for our Heavenly Father. Though when James Levine conducted the Met Orchestra at the shocking end of Berg’s rarely played Three Pieces, or when Deborah Voigt sung with animal frenzy calling for the head of John the Baptist, it obviously resounded up to the Pearly Gates.

Richard Strauss used to re-orchestrate that final scene of Salome to insure that the soprano could be heard, but that was hardly necessary for the New Near-Svelte Deborah Voigt. This was the voice of unbridled licentiousness, yet a voice totally under control. Salome—the Oscar Wilde Salome, translated for Strauss—is a frightening character, but the volatile drama of such a character can sometimes be out of control, or out of range. None of this was true for Ms. Voigt. In the full opera, she may have had room for more subtle characterization. But in this final scene, where she asks for, and receives the head of John the Baptist, flaunts it and pays for her crime, the soprano can be virtually blood-curdling, and nobody would complain.
Ms. Voigt needed no special effects. She sometimes whispered with a kind of proto-Sprechstimme or soared into the nether world. But the multiple perversions of the opera became, in her voice, jubilant, rich and, with such an orchestra, with the lushness of savage rainforest.

Back to civilization with Alfred Brendel playing Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto. In an afternoon of both expression and expressionist wildness, Mr. Brendel brought back the audience to the grace of another era. Mr. Brendel, like his late colleague Rudolf Firkusny, offer a grace and charm to even the most granitic Mozart. The cadenza of the first movement (written, I am told, by Mr. Brendel himself) could have come directly from the 18th Century, for Mr. Brendel’s understanding, as well as his unforced technique, were of another age.

This age, though, was represented by Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Saturday evening, the compassionate and touching Berg was shown in the Violin Concerto. The Three Pieces, though, new to this listener, were cold, anguished, a kind of contrasting icy Berg. But James Levine, more than any conductor today—and certainly more than the austere Pierre Boulez—can bring the most beautiful sounds out of the most complex atonality. Berg’s orchestration lends itself to an operatic reading, and in the second movement, Levine emphasized the Viennese waltz motif. The so-called March did not sound very march-like, except sections with a kind of mordant Charles Ives touch. But the excitement of the whole orchestra was infectious.

Finally the daring opening, Webern’s Six Pieces. While Webern’s calculus-sharp mind produced a reason for even the most minute sounds, one did not need such instructions when Levine was conducting. The images ranged from Kandinsky and Miró, to Jackson Pollock in the great fourth piece.

That might be cheating, and die-hard dodecaphonists can be scornful. But in such an ethereal concert, no rules of listening could be applied.

Harry Rolnick



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