Tanglewood, Mozart and Mahler with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
 James Levine and Leon Fleisher

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Leon-Fleisher and James Levine at Tanglewood, July 17, 2009. Photo Hilary-Scott)
Leon-Fleisher and James Levine at Tanglewood, July 17, 2009. Photo Hilary-Scott)

Tanglewood, Friday, July 17, 8:30 p.m.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Leon Fleisher, piano

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K.488
Mahler, Symphony No. 6

Both halves of this concert concluded with standing ovations. Leon Fleisher’s reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488 was a marvel of elegance and wisdom in itself, but behind it there may well be the knowledge of his three-decade loss of the use of his right hand, and perhaps also his eloquent statement criticizing the Bush administration, when he reluctantly accepted an award. In the disproportionate second half James Levine’s wilful reading of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was exciting and forceful enough to send pretty much the entire audience to its feet.

The gentle, percussionless Mozart concerto was a excellent pairing for the Mahler. Apart from their common roots in the Viennese tradition, Mahler did have his Mozartian moments in the Sixth, and Levine achieved a Mozartian precision and clarity in the sonorities of Mahler’s enormous wind band. The orchestral introduction, quite broad in tempo, was a marvelous example of the rich Viennese Mozart style Levine has cultivated in the Boston Symphony. (Tanglewood audiences had a chance to hear more of this on Sunday, when the same forces will play Mozart’s last three symphonies.) The strings, which were not reduced for the concerto, glowed with a controlled vibrato which emanated from the center of the pitch. Levine even allowed a touch of portamento, a device he uses with restraint these days. Leon Fleisher entered into this luxuriant ambience with a an equally rich-voiced Steinway, quite unlike the drier sound of his early recordings. For Mr. Fleisher, the broad tempo was a vehicle for his analytical approach to the music, a cerebral approach typical of his generation, but mellowed by the sweetness of Levine’s support and his own mature feeling for the beauties of this lyrical concerto. Fleisher broke up the individual phrases and gestures in brief units to give a point to their interrelationships within the harmonic structure of the movements, but the tunes and the passage work flowed mellifluously, not stinting the emotional and sensual aspects of the music.

Coming back to Tanglewood directly after Jordi Savall’s two splendid evenings with Le Concert des Nations, I reflected occasionally on how a historical performance of K. 488 with fortepiano would have put it back in the context of the Vienna of the late 1780’s, but there would be no way to connect such a performance with the work of a Viennese composer of almost a century and a quarter later, and that is something we need just as much as a consciousness of history. Mahler himself made a powerful impression with Mozart’s operas in his time.

Of Levine’s recent Mahler performances with the BSO, the Ninth, ruminative and extremely slow in tempo, was deeply moving, and most of his decisions seemed inevitable. His Mahler First, also very broad, seemed like a daring experiment, an unnecessary, but largely successful effort to bring the First more into line with Mahler’s “mature” works. Levine’s Third failed to convince me that it is not the weakest of Mahler’s symphonies. This past year he has taken on the Sixth. Back in October he performed different versions of the symphony, reversing the order of the slow movement and the scherzo. I missed these unfortunately and know only the recording released by the BSO earlier this year, in which the slow movement comes second, as in the Tanglewood performance. Beyond this, it is astonishing to think of how long Levine has been working with the Mahler symphonies. In his very first appearance with the BSO in 1972 he conducted Mahler’s Sixth, and his 1977 recording with the London Symphony was highly regarded. I liked it myself, but I haven’t heard it in years. At 66, James Levine is by no means old, especially for a conductor, yet he has been conducting Mahler for around forty years. Whatever he has to say about Mahler deserves to be taken very seriously.

In Mahler’s Sixth, Levine took the grim ostinato of the first movement at a very active pace, maintaining this unusually fast basic tempo throughout the movement. The effect was relentless, powerful, and even rather frightening at times. It made its point, but many of the movement’s coloristic effects and sudden shifts of mood did not have the space to get through. It was clear that that was not what Levine was interested in here. He had opted for a sort of literalism which focused on the execution. The first thing that struck me in the first few bars was how absolutely magnificent the playing of the BSO was. We will all hear more affecting performances of the Sixth, and we all have our favorites, but you will never hear it better played than this. I had no issues whatsoever with the beautifully turned slow movement, in which I began to reminisce about Mozart, and the fully nuanced Scherzo. The BSO’s exceptionally clean textures and precision of ensemble let everything come through. It was thrilling to hear Mahler’s counterpoint played with such clarity. Levine’s one-time mentor, George Szell, also came to mind. He performed the Sixth with particular success in quite a similar spirit. In any case the BSO was at its virtuosic best. Levine called for some incredibly fine pianissimi. All the same, I was not particularly moved during all this. I was beginning to think that my days of being seduced by Mahler were over, although the last seduction occurred only last year, with Bernard Haitink’s transporting reading of Mahler’s Second. Still the sonic beauties of Levine’s Sixth were enough for me at the moment. Sometimes it’s a good thing simply to listen to the music in a literal way.

The true revelation came in Mahler’s elaborate finale. In recent years I’ve fond that I don’t entirely buy the idea of Mahler as an advanced composer in his time. His basic mentality, with its Romantic gesture of a communion with nature, remains largely in the nineteenth century, distanced only by a sense of irony, which may prove to be one of the more superficial aspects of his work. On the other hand Levine made it absolutely clear that Mahler was genuinely daring in this amazing finale. Again, the violent chords which transform themselves from major to minor were not nearly as chilling as they can be, but Levine wanted us to focus on other aspects of the score, in which important motifs pass in and out of the foreground, often settling in secondary lines or in accompanying figures. The result was challenging, reminding me that many conductors have glossed over these thorny passages somewhat by stressing melodic lines, the huge accompanied drumbeats, and the more conventional aspects of the score. Levine’s deliberate, very detailed treatment of the introductory section deflected the audience from listening for the most obvious tunes. Melodic fragments, rhythmic patterns, and complex timbres appeared equal in importance. In this movement Mahler demands exceptional concentration from the listener, and Maestro Levine proved to be an exceptionally intelligent and honest guide. I’m especially grateful that this Sixth is among the BSO’s new crop of recordings, although I won’t stop reaching for my recordings by Szell, Horenstein, and Barbirolli. And I haven’t yet seen the DVD with Abbado and his Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

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