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Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky: Anja Silja, Soprano, The MET Orchestra, James Levine, Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 29.01.06 (BH)



Bartók: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19 (1918-23)

Schoenberg: Erwartung, Op. 17 (1909)

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1911-13)



What a dream of an afternoon.  For those with a penchant for raucous early 20th-century modernism, this splendid, generous buffet satisfied, and satisfied, and more so.  One of the nicest comments I can offer is that for two days afterward, I didn’t want to hear any music whatsoever – the spell cast by this amazing concert kept my mind in a vise grip.

Any disappointment that James Levine didn’t program the complete Miraculous Mandarin was quickly forgotten in this scorching reading of the suite.  This was a nervous nail-biter from first to last: the brittle opening, an exhausting and relentless ride in between, and the image of the violinists’ precision bowing in the final three or four slashing chords will stick with me for months.  One could only gaze in awe.  As an aside, I wonder if one of the reasons for this ensemble’s huge sound is that they are used to playing in the larger, and acoustically odd Met house?  When they relocate to Carnegie, their already-large presence is amplified (not to discount their abilities as musicians to produce such volume on their own).

So back to the 20th-century carnival, which continued with the legendary Anja Silja in oh-so-confident form as the protagonist in Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung.  The piece is filled with dread-filled (as opposed to dreadful) imagery, as a woman wanders through a forest and discovers a corpse – perhaps her lover?  Perhaps she killed him?  Ms. Silja, now in her mid-60s, may not have the force of youth but she has the force of experience in spades.  Her jugular reading made a sunny Sunday afternoon positively frightening, with air-raising high notes and equally mesmerizing whispers.  And as for the orchestra, how does Levine do it?  Program annotator David Hamilton cites Levine in agreement with Pierre Boulez, noting Erwartung is “one of the two most challenging pieces to conduct from memory, because there is no ordered repetition of elements.”  Levine’s empathy began with the first note, and coursed through Schoenberg’s violent river right up through the final softly swirling figure that ends the work, almost like an afterthought.

The friend with me noted that Stravinsky’s Rite needs a great timpanist, and the Met has one.  But this reading went far beyond percussive pounding and into the land of magic – a brilliantly colored world populated with some of the best woodwind and brass playing I’ve heard the piece command.  Every shrill cry, every muffled thump, every squeak was in place against a bedrock of strings.  The volume level achieved in the climaxes, rest assured, was plentifully explosive, but the crashing was balanced with luminosity.  It was as if the Carnegie Hall space were completely filled with some kind of giant, prehistoric bird, slowly preening to display every last feather in its sunlit plumage. 



Bruce Hodges




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)