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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937) Cuban Overture [9í52"]
John HARBISON (b. 1938) Symphony No. 3 [24í50"]
Charles IVES (1874-1954) Symphony No. 2 [ 41í10"]
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/James Levine
Recorded 30-31 December 2001, 11-13 January 2002, 1Ė3 February 2002, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Documents of the Munich Years Vol 7.
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 507 [77í59"]


James Levine was Chief Conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from 1999 to 2004. This CD is one of a series of live concert recordings issued by Oehms to commemorate his tenure. Levineís extremely long period as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York (since 1973), and his commitment to that post, has restricted his concert appearances, not least in the UK. One feature of his work at the Met that has attracted almost universal acclaim has been his development of the orchestra there. I donít know how much development he has needed, or been able, to do at Munich but the performances on this CD suggest that he established an excellent rapport with the players who play for him with consistent commitment and no little skill throughout this concert. Itís also worth saying, at the risk of making an obvious point, that the chances are that all three works were new to the orchestra. If so, it was a notable achievement on Levineís part to induce them to deliver this music with evident flair.

To begin at the beginning, Gershwinís colourful overture is an exhilarating piece, which the players seem to enjoy. The rumba rhythms are presented with the requisite swagger and swing. The brass and percussion sections have especially important roles to play and they deliver the goods, even though the brass donít perhaps have quite the same degree of punch that one would encounter with, say, the Cleveland or New York Philharmonic orchestras.

I first got to know Charles Ivesís Second Symphony through Leonard Bernsteinís superb 1987 recording for DG, also taken from live performances. Bernstein was a great exponent of Ives and gave the first performance of this work in 1951. His extrovert, big-hearted reading of this score is magnificently played by the New York Philharmonic in the DG recording and I always thought it would take some matching. Levineís reading may yield on certain points to Bernsteinís but I found it very convincing. Itís a work of transition: Ives hasnít quite left behind the traditional European influences of his teacher, Horatio Parker and others, but the quirky, all-American in him is starting to show through clearly. I think itís this creative tension between two distinct sound worlds and musical cultures that gives this work its special fascination. In his interweaving into this score of the native influences that had been all round him since his youth we truly glimpse for perhaps the first time Ives, in Joseph Horowitzís memorable description, as "an American Everyman who cherished the quotidian; a vigorous democrat, at home with ordinary people and thingsÖ.. whose music is equally prone to plain and extravagant speech." (Classical Music in America. A History of its Rise and Fall (New York, 2005) p.233)

Levine allows the rich, Brahmsian string material with which the first movement opens to unfold very nicely. It sounds natural and unselfconscious. Weíre conscious that here is a composer who knew how to exploit string sonorities. . The second movement has an appealing freshness and is distinguished by some lovely, characterful wind playing. Levineís handling of this whole movement seems to me to be very successful. In particular he knits together Ivesís trademark kaleidoscope of melodic fragments convincingly.

The third movement is given a lovely, restful start. The Munich strings are rich, and the flutes and quiet, golden horns gently join them. Particularly ear-catching is the beautiful cello solo (track 8, from 2í35"). There is nobility in this movement and Levine certainly brings that out. The short fourth movement, again very well played, provides further evidence of how well Ives could write for strings. There are many passages here that I suspect Brahms might have enjoyed. The finale is another mélange of melodic snippets, woven together delightfully by Ives Ė and by Levine. Particularly memorable is the gorgeously warm and expansive horn solo over gentle string figurations (track 10, 1í41" to 3í32"). This passage, which could have come straight out of a DvořŠk symphony, is superbly played here; itís just as ripe and nostalgic as in the Bernstein account. The splendidly extrovert, even raucous, end is huge fun and the final dissonant ďraspberryĒ chord provokes a most enthusiastic reception from the audience Ė and rightly so. This is a quite splendid reading, which I enjoyed every bit as much as the Bernstein recording.

In between the Gershwin and Ives pieces we hear John Harbisonís Third Symphony. The piece has appeared on disc already, in a performance, which Iíve not heard, by the Albany Symphony Orchestra under David Alan Miller (TROY 390). Harbison is a fine and sensitive musician and Iíve enjoyed the music of his that Iíve heard, though I must admit that in my experience works like his Violin Concerto do not give up their secrets easily and demand some pretty careful listening. For me that has also proved to be the case with the Third Symphony, which was commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and first performed by them under their then-Chief Conductor, David Zinman in 1991

Oehms have missed a couple of important tricks in their presentation of this recording. In the first place, the work, which plays continuously, is divided into five sections or "moods." The titles of these moods are listed separately on the back of the jewel case. It would have been of immeasurable help if each mood had been separately tracked but, sadly, this has not happened. To make matters worse, the liner note, translated from German, is wordy and earnest but, frankly, doesnít signpost the music at all well. I recalled reading a short but excellent essay on Harbisonís Second Symphony by Michael Steinberg (The Symphony (1995), pp 183-7.). Sure enough, when I looked it up there was a clear, succinct and helpful commentary on the composer and on the work itself. In fact, the essay is a model of its kind as an example of how to introduce new music to listeners. If only something remotely comparable could have been provided here! As it is, Iím afraid the note is of little help to listeners, most of whom will probably be coming to the work for the first time.

As far as I can tell, without access to a score the five "moods" occur as follows:
Sconsolato Ė Più mosso 0í00""
Nostalgico 4í42"
Militante 9í33"
Appassionato 13í25"
Esuberante 19í43"

Harbisonís language is late-twentieth century and reasonably dissonant. However, it is most definitely accessible and he can and does spin a good melodic line. He is also a colourful and resourceful orchestrator and the rhythmic pulse is always strong. I like the fact that all his music that Iíve heard to date seems to be going somewhere, to be purposeful. Itís also economical; thereís no mere note spinning. All these attributes are on display in the Third Symphony.

The symphony begins in a mood of introspection. (The liner note translates the title of the first mood as "disheartened".) The music begins quietly but more jagged, forceful ideas soon intervene. The gentle woodwind idea that introduces the second mood seemed almost Copland-esque to me. The third mood is an impressive and vigorous section with prominent roles for the xylophone and the marimba. Indeed, percussion instruments are well to the fore hereabouts and I wonder if the array of percussion required prompted the choice of the Gershwin overture to open the programme? In the Appassionato section the music is restless and powerful, even when the dynamics are quiet. This part of the work is scored with particular imagination. Eventually a big climax, which builds quite naturally, is achieved around 18í00". The tempo picks up for the final section, which is extrovert and powerful. I associate the word "exuberance" with joyfulness and Iím not quite sure that Iíd describe this music as "joyful" Ė though I hasten to add thatís not a criticism; maybe Iíve missed something in the music up to now, or perhaps Iíve just drawn my definition of "exuberance" too narrowly. No matter, itís an impressive end to an impressive work. The applause that the performance receives sounds polite rather than enthusiastic and I would have thought that both the music and the performance deserved rather better.

I feel that I havenít really described this symphony at all adequately. In my defence Iíd say again that Harbisonís music, though far from forbidding, needs time to make its full impact. (Perhaps Iím not alone in this; perhaps that accounts for the audienceís muted response?) I am sure, however, that itís a significant score and itís one that I shall certainly want to return to in order to appreciate it more fully. So far as Iím able to judge on relatively limited acquaintance with the music, Levine and his players do the work proud.

This is a very rewarding disc. Itís also an important collection of American music. I recall that when James Levine was named as Ozawaís successor at the Boston Symphony some critics expressed disappointment, perceiving him as a rather dull choice. On the evidence of this CD Iíd say Boston might have made rather a shrewd selection. It only remains to be added that the performances are presented in very good, truthful sound. I enjoyed this disc very much and I strongly recommend it.

John Quinn



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