Amériques, Edgar Varèse’s apocalyptic vision of a
‘New World’, is one of the most raucous and cacophonic works in the
repertoire, and lamentably still not heard often enough in concert.
This astonishing performance under James Levine, a late Prom debutante,
and the Munich Philharmonic, gave Varèse’s revolutionary masterpiece
indescribable power; built from brutal orchestral sonorities the performance
proved spellbinding in its dissonance, visceral in its relentless tread
and, acoustically, spectral. This was a performance which was not just
played; it felt at times like every sound was being given a terrifying,
visionary purpose. The trombone’s mimicked laughter, for example, was
exactly that as the performance explored every dynamic of the composer’s
arbitrary, yet teeming, soundscape.
And what a soundscape Varèse
depicts. Against an occasional Debussyian lyricism (such as the evocative
opening) we get to hear the peripheral sounds of machines, sirens and
traffic juxtaposed with huge orchestral climaxes, which rise like skyscrapers
and adumbrate the quiet spaciousness between the orchestral block-building.
Displaying so visibly the solitary darkness which follows the cumulative
juggernaut of its outbursts, this was a performance of pictorial proportions.
Whether it was in the neo-jazz inflections or the orientalism, first
heard on strings and later repeated by woodwind, the Munich players
gave the score a liquid drama which unfolded with rich, polyphonic integrity.
Levine coaxed playing of sublime precision from the orchestra, conducting
batonless to shape the phraseology, but with a baton in the final section
to point the rhythms with almost militaristic skill. When the final
chords exploded from within the orchestra they did so with pyroclastic
This orchestra’s matchless string
and brass tone, honed for many years by Celibidache’s intense, long-breathed
performances, was heard to maximum effect in the works which began and
closed this well constructed programme. Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses
on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber proved to be a dramatic affair
with golden toned brass vying with deeply sonorous strings to weave
a taut, but plangent, performance of fantasy and exoticism. Ravel’s
Daphnis and Chloë – Suite No.2 began with some of the most
sheerly poetic playing I have heard this year. Exquisite flute solos
(Michael Martin Kofler) were of such sublimity they were soul searching
and the string fortissimos in the central ‘Sunrise’ section were spontaneous
in their dissolving passion. Levine, again conducting with just his
hands, etched a glossy beauty from the orchestra. Only the close of
the work disappointed where Levine shaped the conclusion too briskly.
Mozart’s D minor piano concerto,
K466, with Alfred Brendel as soloist, proved to be the major flaw of
the evening: conductor and soloist seemed at odds with each other throughout
the entire, dilatory gestation of the concerto. If Levine gave a brooding
spaciousness to the opening of the concerto, Brendel took off in an
entirely different direction applying a jauntiness to the piano part
which contradicted the pace set by Levine. Whilst his finger work was
cleaner than I have recently experienced with this pianist there is
still a tendency towards truculence which unsettles the dynamics of
the work he is playing. In all, a prolix affair, and a distraction from
what was generally a concert of consummate artistry.