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A Met Orchestra Triumph

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/10/2011 -  
Arnold Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine (conductor)

E. Kissin (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra)

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra enjoys such renown that some years ago its direction decided to field it in concerts of non-operatic music at Carnegie Hall. Musical New York has never and should never regret this decision. As yesterday’s concert amply demonstrated, the Met’s players, led by their ailing music director James Levine, are simply one of the world’s finest ensembles in any genre today.

So much attention falls on the venerable Met that Levine’s health itself makes news. Long suffering from reported back ailments, the Met’s music director has undergone several surgeries, cancelled a number of performances (including last season’s opening night at Carnegie), and recently given up his demanding secondary commitment as director of the Boston Symphony. He was on hand last night, guided to the podium by a walker that he wheeled before him and helped up by a cane. But once he was seated, the magic began. Levine’s conducting, often derided for its slower tempi, radiated enormous energy all afternoon. The first piece, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, dates from an era when music was undergoing a transformation from romantic tonality to the dissonant atonality. Originally composed for a large orchestra in 1909, first performed two years later, and then reduced to a smaller orchestration in 1949, it is the latter incarnation that is considered definitive. Levine has championed such works, and the previous evening he led an audaciously cutting performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the Met. In the Schoenberg piece, he delivered a fresh reading of each of its five brief parts, drawing from the orchestra crisp diversions in form and illustrating Schoenberg’s self-confessed attempt to experiment with alternatives to tone.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 brought us back to the beginnings of Romanticism. No one could accuse piano soloist Evgeny Kissin of excessive delicacy, but this could point to the one possible flaw in the orchestral playing – it was perhaps too loud for the piece. Especially in the first movement, Kissin’s abundant skill seemed to yield at times to a need to compensate for the driven sounds Levine was producing. The second movement was calmer and allowed more of Kissin’s delicacy to come through. By the final movement complete harmony reigned and the Cracovienne dance motifs shone with a perfect radiance. In his solo encore, Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, Kissin was freer to play for himself and indulge his introspective technique.

Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 filled the second part of the program with the high Romanticism Schoenberg was trying to escape. Long obsessed with the idea that he was working in Beethoven’s far-reaching shadow, the opening movements of the work cannot help but sound derivative of the earlier composer. But the third and fourth movements are awash in imaginative new themes that show a mature artist truly coming into his own. Levine’s strong interpretation may rightly be called definitive, perhaps even stern. Loud applause resounded as he rose with some difficulty to accept the audience’s accolades. The Met Orchestra will make one more Carnegie Hall appearance this season, in May with soprano Natalie Dessay, and return next season in a series of three concerts.

Paul du Quenoy



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