James Levine: He's back!

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 6, 2010

The guest star was a great Wagner singer, the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (towering over Levine like a giant redwood) in three major arias introduced by or concluding with orchestral music from those operas. Levine led off with the celebratory Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg — vivid entrance music that, after a somewhat muddy start (harder to hear strings than brass) increased in momentum — and joy. Then Terfel sang the meditative Hans Sachs monologue, in which the old master singer/poet/cobbler acknowledges a new voice, a new music he doesn't entirely understand but knows in his bones is the real thing. Terfel sang with inner dignity and thoughtfulness. Levine is surely the most sensitive, sympathetic accompanist in opera, and the playing had a radiant transparency.

From this quietude we took off on a vigorous "Ride of the Valkyries," from Die Walküre, with eight magnificent horns signaling the arrival of the demi-goddesses who will carry fallen warriors into Valhalla, Levine incisively defining the rhythm of their gallop. As the famous Valkyrie theme (remember the helicopters in Apocalypse Now) moved from horns to trombones, the Valkyries seemed to be getting closer and closer. This was not just an orchestral showpiece. Like the Meistersinger Prelude, it was telling a story. Then Terfel, as Wotan, leader of the gods, now characterfully moving his hands and arms, delivered his poignant farewell to his disobedient favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, as he puts her to sleep on a lonely rock and has her surrounded with fire to protect her from anyone who isn't a hero. Terfel turned to face the orchestra as Levine surrounded us all with sublime "Magic Fire Music."

One of the BSO's great moments has been Levine's 2005 concert version of Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner's powerful early ghost story about the sailor who needs the self-sacrifice of a loving woman to be saved from his eternal wandering. This time, the roiling Overture was, if anything, even more dramatic, and Terfel's stunning rendition of the Dutchman's tormented monologue brought down the house. Who could sing anything after this? But he returned for an encore, Wolfram's tender prayer to the "Evening Star" from Wagner's Tannhäuser, maybe the loveliest live version I've ever heard, ending the evening with an exquisite pianissimo.

At the post-concert dinner, Levine said that he'll stay with the BSO as long as he's able, and that if he can't, he'll help find his successor. After this concert, who wouldn't pray for his continued — and unwavering — good health?

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