Beloved of God

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  February 26, 2009

Michael Steinberg's program note points out that since Mozart was only 32 when he composed these mature masterworks, they are still early works, even though he would live only another three years. The nine symphonies on Levine's two previous concerts Mozart composed between the ages of eight and 17, and only the last one, his other, "Little" G-minor Symphony, the dramatic No. 25, is a full-throated masterpiece, a breakthrough in invention, originality, and power. Three of these early pieces had never before been performed by the BSO, and none requires the deepest interpretive insights. Yet Levine and the players (in essence half the orchestra playing each concert, with numerous substitutes) lavished a loving tenderness and sweetness on all of them while maintaining their compositional backbone. You could hear anticipations of more familiar music. The exquisitely unfolding slow movement of the E-flat No. 19 foreshadows Susanna's sublime "Deh vieni non tardar" in the last act of Figaro. The unnumbered Symphony in G, the so-called Lambach, is a gem of melodic elegance. And everywhere are those passing minor-key shadows, the fingerprint of the later master of the subjunctive mood. Levine treated all these fledgling symphonies with respect and seriousness, without condescension. What pleasure! What a lovely note on which the maestro ended his fifth season with the BSO.

Before that, the Metropolitan Opera's leading Italian soprano, Barbara Frittoli (Amelia in the BSO's Verdi Simon Boccanegra the week previous), returned to revel in an elaborate late Mozart concert aria and a dramatic early aria on a Levine program that ended with Brahms's Symphony No. 2 and featured the premiere of Gunther Schuller's Where the Word Ends. Schuller completed this big orchestral commission two years ago, but Levine postponed it because he didn't think the BSO had enough time to prepare it. Some 105 players filled the extended Symphony Hall stage for this colorful, riveting, engaging 25-minute 12-tone extravaganza. Beautifully laid out and gorgeously scored, it's a single movement in four distinct sections, with a full Scherzo-and-Trio interrupting the "second-movement" Adagio. Schuller said he wrote it quickly, in a white heat. Schuller is at least as well known for his interest in jazz (he coined the term "third stream") as for his classical compositions, and Where the Word Ends is full of jazzy syncopations and woozy, bluesy passages for horn (Schuller's own instrument) right out of Gershwin or Ellington. My main reservation about the piece is that it leans too heavily on Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps, even to the point of being a kind of gloss, not only in its jagged and motoric rhythms but also in its sinuous, murmuring dream-like slow passages.

After five years of collaboration, and one Grammy-winning disc (Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs, with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson), Levine and the BSO have now taken the first step in releasing a series of recordings, live performances on the orchestra's own label, BSO Classics. These include CDs of their gorgeous 2007 Ravel Daphnis et Chloû and last fall's stirring Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem plus downloads of Levine's magnificent Mahler Sixth Symphony and what was for me the BSO's most disappointing commission, William Bolcom's turgid Eighth Symphony, excerpts from Blake's bewildering prophetic books for orchestra and unintelligible chorus.

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