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PROMS 2002

PROM 59: Hindemith, Mozart, Varèse, Ravel, Alfred Brendel (pf), Munich Philharmonic, James Levine, RAH, 3rd September 2002 (MB)


, 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 breadth.

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.

Marc Bridle


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