Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is Volume 2 of “Documents of the Munich Years,” live-performance recordings chosen by Maestro Levine from his 1999–2004 tenure as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic (12 CDs in eight volumes). As Boston audiences are now discovering, Levine is a committed promoter of American 20th-century music. His three-plus decades at the Metropolitan Opera looked more conservative due to the nature of opera, that organization, and its audiences; when he leads The Met Orchestra in concert, his programs are often more adventurous, recently including a magnificent performance of Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. It was amazing to see 2,400 people leap to their feet at the end of a Carter work, cheering even before the
96-year-old composer reached the stage to congratulate the musicians. No orchestra in the world is currently up to the Met’s standards, certainly not the Munich Philharmonic. This 2003 performance of the Carter is excellent, nevertheless, if at a less inspired level; everything in the score is clearly delineated. Levine’s Chicago Symphony recording on DG is no longer available, and this one is preferable to the two others I know. Carter has a reputation as a difficult composer, but this mid-1950s work, to my mind his masterpiece, is all clarity and energy. The complex finale is virtually another set of variations; for those who wish to study the work further, David Schiff’s The Music of Elliot Carter (1983) devotes 24 pages to a detailed analysis.
Charles Wuorinen’s 1971 Grand Bamboula, written for string orchestra, is at once a highly rhythmic Caribbean dance and a tightly organized 12-tone work, although the latter is not apparent to the casual listener. Roger Sessions’s 1955 Piano Concerto announces its Schoenbergian origins early, yet Sessions plays free and easy with the rules, blending in many of the formal attributes and much of the atmosphere of a conventional, three-movement Romantic piano concerto. Robert Taub is obviously comfortable with the piece; he was also the soloist in its first recording.
Robert Di Domenica (b. 1927) has been a flutist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and with the Modern Jazz Quartet; he was also dean of the faculty for composition and theory at the New England Conservatory. He studied composition with Schoenberg pupil Josef Schmid for six years, and this 1961 Symphony was one of the fruits thereof. It is a 12-tone work based on a passage from the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, which has 11 consecutive notes without any repetition. Di Domenica simply added the one missing note, thus completing a tone row. His music is gentle, friendly serialism with a Mozartean aura, and the G-Minor Symphony suddenly bursts forth at one moment early on. While no masterpiece, Di Domenica’s work is that rare and admirable creation, a one-of-a-kind original.
The Munich orchestra’s playing is elegant throughout, somewhat more restrained than one hears from the best American orchestras. These live performances are surprisingly error-free, until some tricky passagework in Di Domenico’s symphony gives the horns a tough time. The recorded sound is intimate and agreeable. Sensible notes in German and English include an informative one-page bio of conductor Levine. This is one of the most fascinating discs in this fine series.
James H. North, FANFARE
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