Levine and MET Orchestra: brilliant

January 30, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (edited by Ravel). Performed by James Levine and the MET Orchestra. (Deutsche Grammophon 437 531-2)

In his 22-year tenure as its conductor, James Levine has turned the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera into one of the greatest in the world. About 12 years ago, Levine and the MET Orchestra took their first step into the purely orchestral repertory with a performance of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre." In the last few years, such ventures into the concert hall have become more frequent, and Deutsche Grammophon (DG), Levine's label, has given the conductor a green light to record with his primary orchestra.

Both "Le Sacre" and the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures" have been performed frequently by this team, as this recording demonstrates. These are brilliant, almost brutally aggressive readings of pieces that respond well to such treatment. The orchestral playing in "Le Sacre" is beautiful: The opening bassoon solo is flexible and betrays no hint of strain; the off-beat accents explode with energy; and the grinding chords conjure up the steam engine locomotive imagery that infatuated artists at the turn of the century and found its way into art and literature as well as music. The Mussorgsky-Ravel is similarly brilliant.

But I find it hard to recommend this record with enthusiasm. Its virtues sound so generic, and better (certainly, more personal) performances can be had at a cheaper price. For the same coupling in performances, seasoned with more lyricism and nostalgia, try the Karajan-Berlin Philharmonic version on the same label's mid-price line. For a "Le Sacre" second to none in its rhythmic incisiveness, try the Boulez-Cleveland Orchestra version on Sony (it's coupled with the same composer's "Petrushka"). In the Mussorgsky-Ravel, I have great fondness for several older performances: the Toscanini-NBC and the Koussevitsky-Boston, both on RCA. A great 1966 performance that still sounds very good and can be obtained for about $7 is the Karajan-Philharmonia on EMI.

*

Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" and "Petrushka" (1947 Suite), performed by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (EMI Classics CDC 7 54899 2); Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 and "Symphonic Dances," performed by Jansons and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (EMI Classics CDC 7 54877 2).

Very little Jansons does, either in the Russian or the Scandinavian repertory, lacks interest. The Stravinsky album offers a "Le Sacre" that has more character, Russian grandeur and color than Levine's. The "Petrushka" Suite offers the same virtues. What keeps these performances short of the very best is that the Oslo Philharmonic, while a fine orchestra, is not a great one. But while these may not be powerhouse performances, they are musical ones, and I suspect I will return to them.

Jansons' Rachmaninoff performances are another story. The St. Petersburg (formerly the Leningrad) Philharmonic is not as good as it was before most of its Jewish string players emigrated to Israel and the United States, but it's still a great ensemble and it plays this music with red-blooded conviction, nobility and delicacy matched on records in recent years only by Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Concertgebouw (London).

The Symphonic Dances begins without any of the usual teasing affectations, builds to a pitch of excitement and stays there for more than 33 minutes. This is the composer's last and finest piece, and Jansons and the St. Petersburg make it sound as concise and compelling as the best Mozart.

The problematic Symphony No. 3 is equally good. The coda of the final movement has always presented a problem to conductors. The piece seems to be building to an explosive conclusion, then wanders through what seems a digressive maze and changes in meters before meandering to an end.

Jansons is able, as few conductors are, to negotiate these troubled waters, bringing the Symphony No. 3 to what seems a logical and exciting conclusion.

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