Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine: Berg Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

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Alban Berg
Alban Berg

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
Symphony Hall, Boston, Thursday, November 8, 2007

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 9

The Berg Violin Concerto (1935) and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1910) are indeed a magical pair. Not only did Berg have a great affection for Mahler, both works are suffused with an elegiac, deathwards-inclined but lifewards-looking mood and a kindred morbid lyricism. The formal affinities between the two works are also intriguing. The concerto consists of two movements in two sections, while the four movements of the symphony also fall into a binary pattern, one of two slow movements framing a pair of fast movements. Their differences are also enlightening. Mahler’s thematic vocabulary remained full of the popular motifs which he first absorbed in his early work with Des Knaben Wunderhorn and street music, and Berg, while weaving in a wistfull memory of a Viennese waltz, constructed the last of his two movements on a chorale of Bach (“Es itst genug!” from the Cantata, Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort whose rich setting was sympathetic to Berg’s own harmonic vocabulary. As rich and contemporary as Berg’s treatment was, it evokes the purism of the “back to Bach” trend of the twenties and thirties. For more biographical background and analysis, click here for the rich program annotations by Michael Steinberg, which also include a fascinating defense of Mahler’s music by Aaron Copland, actually a letter to the New York Times from April 2, 1925, which was reprinted in the BSO program to the Mahler Ninth’s American premiere in 1931 under Serge Koussevitzky.

James Levine obviously loves these two great masterpieces, and, as he points out in his own compelling program note, he has performed them together before. But this particular evening the chemistry of the meeting between Berg and Mahler, as well as Christian Tetzlaff’s presence, produced deeply moving performances, the most penetrating I have yet heard from Mr. Levine, another telling sign of the progress both he and the Boston Symphony have made since he became Music Director. It seemed as if Berg’s Violin Concerto propelled him beyond his fascination with the purely musical aspects of Mahler’s composition and enabled him to connect with its spiritual core. Or perhaps, unlike Mahler’s Third, there was no case to make for the Ninth, generally acknowledged as his greatest work, along with Das Lied von der Erde.

Tetzlaff’s intimate, humane tone reinforced the reflective mood which introduces the concerto and prevails throughout. In fact the orchestra absorbed this intimacy as well and even sounded like a chamber group at times, belying the massive forces in Berg’s score. Throughout the concerto, Tetzlaff stood barely more than a yard from Levine, communicating closely through eye contact and body language. Levine’s concentration was, as always, total, and he supported the soloist with a reading full of exquisite detail, as well as flowing cohesion.

Levine has long abandoned the minimal beat which proved so frustrating for the orchestra early in his tenure. Both in the Berg, and especially in the Mahler, his personal identification with the emotional content of the work elicited even dramatic gestures which in turn produced richly expressive playing from the musicians. As in the concerto, he achieved a perfect balance between expressiveness, aural beauty, structural proportion, and flow. This was not lost on the public, who showed their absorption by almost total silence.

Both performances were free from any kind of eccentricity or overt interpretive postures, and it suffices merely to observe that this was without a doubt one of the great, unforgettable evenings at Symphony Hall.

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