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CD Review

The MET Orchestra in Carnegie Hall

* Evgeny Kissin, piano
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine
Recorded live, 19 May 2013
Deutsche Grammophon 4810553 2CDs
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I missed this remarkable concert recording when it came out last year, but it must have been an absolute thrill to see live. James Levine has suffered numerous health issues over the last several years, drastically reducing his ability to keep his conducting engagements. Yet even in a wheelchair, and clearly frail, the now 71-year old maestro still commands tremendous respect. Here, just shy of his 70th year, his return to leading the MET after a two-year hiatus is preserved. You couldn't ask for much more.

It was Levine who pioneered the MET's orchestral concert series, rightly believing that he could broaden the orchestra's range while also connecting his charges more fully to the music they played in the pit. And so, works like the Rite of Spring made the rounds, in addition to the usual fare, and Levine built a genuinely formidable orchestra in the process. It's fitting to see Beethoven and Schubert here, and equally rewarding to see Wagner, a composer with whom Levine has a justifiable legacy. Any doubts about Levine's ability to lead in his condition were rendered moot on this evening; the MET forces play with a real intensity and sense of occasion. For his part, Levine not only directs excitingly, but surpasses his studio versions of these pieces with relative ease.

The Wagner Prelude begins with some unbelievable string playing. It shines, for lack of a better word, and upholds the conductor's reputation for mastery in this repertoire. Levine, to his credit, refuses to simply bathe in the sound, moving things forward and maintaining musical structure. The Beethoven features very fine contributions from the winds and very, very incisive strings (the notes contend that some of the patrons in attendance actually jumped at the start of the second movement). Kissin is well known in this music; he last recorded this on a decent cycle with the late Colin Davis. I haven't heard it, but considering that Davis already had two complete Beethoven sets under his belt, I doubt he brought anything new to the party. Levine and Kissin recorded the "Emperor" together on Sony Classical back in the day, and their familiarity as artistic partners pays off here. Kissin can do anything – indeed, the question is rarely if he can, but if he should – and here he manages to ally his unquestionable skill with real musicality. Certainly this is preferable to Levine's earlier Fourth, also recorded live, with Alfred Brendel. For those who care about such things, the solo cadenza is the shorter one favored by Arrau and others. The encore is neatly dispatched, and quite playful.

Disc two holds a wonderful Schubert Symphony #9. This is not an easy work by any means. It requires plenty of forward momentum and can easily bore in less capable hands. Levine's own Chicago recording doesn't make many people's short lists, and even if it did, the real sense of occasion here would likely make this the recording to choose. Right from the opening bars, the nobility of tone is married to a welcome vigor. Brass are warm and splendidly projected, while the strings' incisive nature plays huge dividends here. So too does the flattering sound image of Carnegie Hall, which gives a warm glow to the entire concert. As full concerts go on disc, this is truly one of the finer ones, and a great tribute to the storied relationship between Levine and the MET. Awesome.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman