Those of us who were disappointed that Levine's back surgery last fall kept him from his very first complete Beethoven-symphony cycle (and who were also disappointed by the quality of his replacements) got some compensation last week in what had been intended as his repeat performances of Beethoven symphonies 4 through 7.
The first of these was his first BSO performance of No. 6, the familiar Pastorale, and it was a lovely outing in the country, balancing the rustic with the elegant, the sounds of rural musicmaking, warbling birds, purling brooks, and a thunderstorm with symphonic style and structure. One could practically hear the country festivities turning into a symphony. (The "cheerful gathering of the country folk," however, was so fast and peppy, it sounded as if someone had laced those bumpkins' kegs with speed.) The Seventh Symphony was perhaps one rehearsal shy of complete precision and the most telling tempo transitions, though the audience roared its approval after the breathless finale. This was closer to convincing Beethoven than what Loren Maazel gave us in October.
Hard to believe that Levine had never before conducted with a professional orchestra the symphony with which he led off the next concert: Beethoven's enchanting Fourth. The expansive Adagio introduction is one of Beethoven's miracles. It usually goes by too fast, but Levine nailed it, letting it unfold with care and stealth before it exploded into the stardust-and-quicksilver lightness of the Allegro vivace. Beethoven's faster-than-usual slow movement (Allegretto) was a songful caress (lovingly articulated by clarinettist William R. Hudgins). The quiet playing sounded magical. Another punchy Allegro vivace set up the Haydnesque scamper of the finale.
This Beethoven mini-cycle ended with a powerful Eroica, the soul of which was the profound second-movement funeral march, with oboist John Ferrillo injecting a heartbreaking human voice into the solemn procession. Levine even seemed to get the orchestra to play with an edge-of-tears clutch in the throat. At first, I wasn't sure about the opening movement. I wanted more weight. It seemed almost brash. But this is, after all, only Beethoven's third symphony (and, at the time, the biggest one ever). Looking back at that movement after the heroic games of the Scherzo and the soul-searching finale, I thought Levine was deliberately opening with the voice of an impulsive know-it-all and ending with something more deeply philosophical, questioning the nature of true heroism. (This symphony was conceived as a celebration of Napoleon, but then Napoleon betrayed his idealistic supporters by making himself emperor.) On the following night's live broadcast, I heard greater deliberation in the first movement, so maybe the maestro had already rethought what he wanted.
In the third new BSO program of the week, Levine led a special pension-fund concert devoted to the Strausses — not only Richard (a touching and sensitively characterized Don Quixote, with cellist Lynn Harrell, and principal violist Steven Ansell as Sancho Panza) but also Johann I, Johann II, and Josef (father and sons, and not related to Richard): the Overture to Die Fledermaus, two waltzes, three polkas, and the famous Radetzky March. In his program note, Levine explained that he's eager to restore light classical music — no longer part of Pops programming — to the BSO repertoire. Oddly, Don Quixote and even Berg's Three Pieces had more Viennese delicacy than the overture or the waltzes. We got Otto Preminger's heavy hand when we needed the Ernst Lubitsch touch. Where was the quintessential anti-gravitational buoyancy? Style is too hard to learn in one short rehearsal period. The explosive polkas were more fun, and when Levine swiveled around to conduct the audience clapping in the march, everyone was just putty in his hand.