Transfigured nights

The BSO’s Schoenberg and Beethoven; Boston Baroque’s Don Giovanni; Opera Boston’s La clemenza di Tito
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 24, 2006

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DON GIOVANNI: Obliterating the mysterious sympathy we’re meant to feel.

James Levine and the BSO resumed their Beethoven/Schoenberg series with superb performances of two pieces at the opposite ends of the Schoenberg spectrum: Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night,” 1899), in the composer’s own string-orchestra arrangement (1917, revised 1943) of his original string sextet, and his 12-tone Piano Concerto (1942), with soloist Daniel Barenboim. Verklärte Nacht was as careful (and ecstatic) as the concerto was exhilarating and mercurial and, in places, exquisite — one of the least forbidding of Schoenberg’s serial scores, with its militant marches and tender solos.

I’m tempted to say that Barenboim and Levine played the Schoenberg concerto as if it were Beethoven and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto as if it were Schoenberg. I wish that had been the case, that I’d discovered surprising harmonies and thematic kernels. The audience was certainly enthusiastic about the Beethoven — the applause started as early as the end of the first movement. And though some concerto movements — by Brahms, for instance — are so full of bravura they elicit applause, the Beethoven Fourth is different, more internalized, more “spoken,” especially in the first two movements, before the exciting cavalry-coming-to-the-rescue finale. It opens with a thoughtful piano solo, virtually unheard of in Beethoven’s time (no longer an anomaly for Schoenberg 135 years later). So the applause after the first movement was a sign the performers’ intention to arouse the audience was misplaced. The one player with Beethoven’s “speaking” voice was oboist John Ferrillo.

By the third performance, part of which I heard on the radio, everything seemed more focused — and there was an extraordinary encore: Schubert’s piercing F-minor Fantasy for Piano Four Hands, played with heartfelt warmth and spirited directness by Barenboim and Levine in a broader but more eloquent performance than the one Levine gave last year with Evgeny Kissin, misguidedly on two separate pianos.

Twenty years ago, conductor Martin Pearlman and Banchetto Musicale (now Boston Baroque) gave the first American performance on period instruments of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. His uneven cast (what Don Giovanni cast isn’t uneven?) featured some extraordinary singers: James Maddalena, the greatest American Don Giovanni; Sarah Reese as the betrayed Donna Elvira; Sharon Baker as Zerlina, the easily seduced peasant girl; tenor Frank Kelley as the protective Don Ottavio. But Pearlman himself hadn’t figured out how to shape this “dramma giocoso” with its wild swings from sex-farce to apocalyptic cataclysm. Eleven years later, he had another go at it, this time leading with more drive and more innuendo, responding perhaps to Laurence Senelick’s sophisticated semi-staging. Christine Goerke, who went on to sing Donna Elvira at the Met, and Nathan Berg, as Leporello, Don Giovanni’s eager though disgruntled servant, were the standouts.

Now Pearlman has revived it again, this time in a more elaborate staging by Sam Helfrich, who had a huge hit last season with his witty go at Handel’s Agrippina. This version marked some advance for Pearlman, whose conducting continued to be short on innuendo but was more architectural and rhythmically incisive (thanks mainly to master timpanist John Grimes). Everything moved at a lively clip.

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