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James Levine: A Celebration in Music
Bela Bartok, Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
James Levine: A Celebration in Music
Genres: Blues, Classical


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Standing back to view Levine's greatness
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 11/03/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"With almost forty years before the microphones, it's time to assess James Levine as more than "Maestro at the Met." These four CDs at bargain price reveal nothing less than his stature as the greatest American symphony conductor after Leonard Bernstein.

His eminence began early, perhaps too early, with some phenomenal recordings in his twenties and early thirties, mostly for RCA, including some extraordinary Mahler. But Levine moved so young to the Met and did such an outstanding job there that for thirty years record companies have not been able to promote him adequately to the public as a great symphonic maestro.

This box set of outstanding performances from every period (Mozart to Webern) lets us see how superlative Levine has been with four great orchestras. Although everything here is commendable, I would judge the least successful to be his partnership with the Chicago Sym., even though he served for a decade as music director of their summer festival at Ravinia. Here, the CSO sounds brash, virtuosic, and unstylish too much of the time, as witness the Prokofiev Fifth in this set. Happily, the Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celestra is much stronger. Levine also has mixed results on the CD devoted to the Berlin Phil. Despite the thoroughly detailed and impeccable Sibelius Fourth in this set, it lacks the gorgeous style that Karajan brought to this composer with the same orchestra. I much prefer Levine's Berlioz from Berlin, especially the Requiem.

However, once we come to the CD with the MET Orchestra we are on home turf. This is Levine's baby, of course, without a doubt the greatest opera orchestra in the world (behind only the Vienna Phil. when it plays in the pit for the Vienna State Opera). Of special ote is one of Levine's signature showpieces, the Rite of Spring. The fourth CD is with the Vienna Phil., wth wom Levine seems to have a special kinship: they play sweetly and with incredible style and energy for him, as witness the Mozart Haffner Sym. and Brahms First included here--but really almost every recording Levine made in Vienna is superb.

Taken altogether, Levine emerges, in my mind, as an updated George Szell, his early mentor in Cleveland. He has the older conductor's sharp mind, critical ear, and disdain for cheap emotion. Both men display a self-effacing dedication to precise ensemble--Levine is tireless in rehearsal and deeply repsected by his musicians. He can at times be as faceless as Szell, but never as cold or abrupt.

There's no doubt that Levine never aimed to be a "personality" conductor: when you hear even his best performances, you don't immediatley say, "That must be Levine," the way you can with Bernstein or Karajan. This impersonality has hurt him among record buyers, I think, because he does everything so well, yet so similarly in terms of steady tempos, extroverted virtuosity, and the absence of inward reflection. One forgets that another great conductor--Toscanini--who had the same virtues. Once you wake up and notice Levine, the thing he has perfected--finding incredible detail and nuance at high energy--becomes immensely exciting. Without casting a spell a la Karajan, Levine draws you into the inner texture of music, its driving logic, and holds your attention without the slightest lapse in concentration.

I must admit that it took me too many years to notice this. I took Levine for granted, and like many other collectors, I rarely picked his CDs as first choice, opera aside. Now I see how wrong I've been. Having heard him under symphonic condiitons in Boston and New York about eight times in the past three years, I'd say that Levine has grown enormously as an interpreter and now exceeds Szell by quite a distance, not to mention lesser compatriots like Lorin Maazel, Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Slatkin, James Conlon, David Zinman--all gifted conductors but none remotely in the same league. Levine really desrves, after all these years, to be called maestro."
Excellent Levine survey
Alexander Leach | Shipley, West Yorkshire United Kingdom | 09/05/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Buried in the booklet for this set is the statement that Levine himself selected the works included here, and well chosen they are. The four CDs each celebrate his work with one orchestra - namely the Chicago SO, the VPO, the BPO, and the MET, with recordings made from the late 1980s through to the mid-nineties.

The collosally conceived (and magnificently played) Prokofiev Fifth with the CSO is outstanding, and the Bartok coupling, if not quite on the same level, is very fine.

The VPO disc is pretty good, although Levine missed a trick in not including his brilliant Brahms Third from the same set rather than the First given here, enjoyable though it is.

When Levine's BPO Sibelius Fourth and Fifth CD originally came out, I recall it got poor reviews - but hearing it now that must have been for the Fifth, for the Fourth here is extremely fine, weighty but incisive. Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht is not quite in the Karajan class but still very enjoyable.

Finally we get Levine's own MET Orchestra in the Rite of Spring (superb), Tod und Verklarung, and the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod (both fine), though the Liebestod is not the equal of Kleiber's from his complete opera set, with the divine Margaret Price as Isolde.