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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried Idyll
(1870) [18:14]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht
(1899) [28:43]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
(1945) [31:47]
Berliner Philharmoniker/James Levine
rec. live, venue not given, first issued 1992

James Levine’s long tenure as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, has tended to overshadow his concert work. Here is an opportunity to redress the balance with a programme which plays to his strengths in highly dramatic concert music.
Verklärte Nacht and Metamorphosen make a natural pair, despite coming from opposite ends of their respective composers’ careers. They are each single movements for strings and are of similar length. Each is in a highly chromatic post-Wagnerian idiom and each had earlier versions for smaller forces. Verklärte Nacht was originally written for string sextet. It was transcribed for string orchestra in 1917 and this version was further revised in 1943, which is what we hear here. In fact in this form it is only two years earlier than Metamorphosen. This started life as a string septet, though Strauss neither finished nor published this version. He turned it into a work for 23 solo strings, in effect a chamber orchestra, following a commission from Paul Sacher, that good angel who commissioned so many important works.

I started my listening with Verklärte Nacht and was immediately impressed by the quietness of the opening and the fabulous Berlin strings. Not only are they consistently rich and lyrical but the violins are impeccably in tune even in their highest flights which so often can seem a bit scrawny in other hands. Levine handles the tempo very flexibly allowing a good deal of ebb and flow, which seemed all very natural to me. He also manages the very complex writing well – to take one example, at nine bars before letter G half the strings play with mutes and half without while the main themes move between violins and high violas before descending into the depths. He also achieves that ecstatic feeling at the culmination of the work.
Metamorphosen was not quite so impressive because of the extremely slow tempo with which Levine begins. Yes it is marked Adagio, but Strauss immediately qualified that with ma non troppo. The Berlin strings sustain the slow tempo magnificently but this is a work which, for all its beauty, risks dragging unless it is moved along. Matters improve at the direction etwas fliessender at bar 82 and thereafter the interweaving and transformation of the themes unfolds with increasing intensity. Even the drop back to the tempo primo at bar 390 did not feel as slow as the opening, though I did not check with a metronome. The sad ending, when the theme from the Eroica symphony returns in the bass, where Strauss wrote the words In memoriam! was finely judged and I felt satisfied slightly despite myself.

These two works often make up a disc without any further coupling but here we have the Siegfried Idyll as well, placed in its chronological place at the beginning of the programme. This is not another work for strings as a handful of wind instruments have small but significant parts. Levine is an experienced Wagnerian and he gives a performance belonging more to the lush orchestral than to the chamber type. As Wagner’s published version is for multiple strings, and not for solo strings as at the first performance, I consider this perfectly legitimate though I would not always want to hear it like this. Again I admire Levine’s handling of the ebb and flow. He integrates the wind instruments into the texture well, giving them the right degree of prominence.

These are live recordings, though you would not guess it as there is no audience applause or background noise. The venue is not stated, though it was presumably the Philharmonie in Berlin and not the Jesus-Christ Church where they have made many recordings. There is a slight tendency to blur in climaxes but it is not obtrusive and I soon ceased to notice it. The playing of the Berlin strings is throughout quite wonderful and this makes a most satisfying programme, if you can reconcile yourself to the slow tempo at the start of Metamorphosen.

Stephen Barber



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