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Schubert, Carter and Brahms: Elizabeth Rowe (flute), Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Symphony Hall, Boston, 9.2.2010 (KH)

Schubert: Overture & Incidental Music to Rosamunde

Carter: Flute Concerto (U.S. première)
Elizabeth Rowe, flute

Brahms: Symphony № 4 in e minor, Opus 98

Through the vagaries of time, scheduling, and the consortium of commissioning bodies, we have here the American première of a piece which Elliott Carter composed almost two years ago. And this local première comes third in line after the world première in Jerusalem (September 2008) and a European première in Berlin (June 2009), both played by Emmanuel Pahud and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. This Boston performance also marks the subscription series debut of BSO principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe as soloist with the BSO.

Levine has repeatedly expressed pleasure at the degree of confidence with which the BSO has mastered Carter’s idiom, and the conductor received full vindication of this claim from both orchestra and Ms. Rowe in an expert and vivid realization of this recent concerto. The venerable Mr. Carter is at an age where any possible need for stylistic reconsideration is past; yet the concerto balances his characteristic rapidity of musical event and nimble rhythmic profile, with passages of sustained, homogeneous tones which represent something of a novelty in Carter’s music, dating from scores such as Wind Rose and Sound Fields. (BSO commentator Robert Kirzinger describes this development in Carter’s music as “astonishing,” which I think borders on hyperbole, but it is certainly an aspect of musical refreshment in the late music of this master composer.)

At Symphony Hall there is a reliable diet of Brahms every year; lest this seem a matter of routine, however, the recent Grammy award for the BSO’s February 2009 release of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is a vivid example of the capacity Levine and the Boston orchestra have for playing long-familiar music, and enduing it with a riveting freshness which is not in the least mannered. This reviewer has no idea what the plans may be for the next wave of releases on the BSO Classics label. But this week, they played the Brahms Fourth with such intensity, the entire work so surpassingly beautiful, that there was a palpable sense that the orchestra felt they were giving a performance which will be a contender for prizes in the current year. Memory is still comparatively green of other groups and conductors releasing recordings of Brahms symphonies, of something of an indistinct, workaday character. Let them come to Boston; Levine and the BSO will show them how it ought to be done.

The Rosamunde music (including an overture which was not actually used in either of the two performances of the play before it was withdrawn forever) is pleasant, but of little consequence; it is music we should hardly hear at all today, except that it was written by Schubert, who distinguished himself greatly with other music. It is to the credit of both the band and Levine that they played this marginalia as if it mattered greatly indeed. In truth, it was a full program, and the musicians gave every note their attention, and an always appropriate musicality; and it was part of the rich pleasure of Tuesday evening’s performance that every note, great or slight, sang with a joy in the live music.

Karl Henning

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