Its opera season over, the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera moved into Carnegie Hall last night for a concert. On the podium was the company’s music director, soon to be its music director emeritus: James Levine. And there was a soloist: the pianist Evgeny Kissin.
Levine and Kissin have worked together for a long time. Twenty years ago, they recorded a couple of Beethoven concertos. Ten years ago, they played a recital of four-hands music by Schubert in Carnegie Hall. (I should probably mention that Levine was once a formidable pianist.) That event was turned into a recording.
The program last night was all-Russian, and all-Romantic. It began with an overture—a bow to the opera world. This was the overture to Ruslan and Ludmila, by Glinka. The music had that special Levine bounce. And his speedy heft, if you will. Moreover, there was wonderful uniformity in the strings.
But the playing, overall, was not quite precise. And, in the end, the music did not quite have its dynamism and thrill.
How should we judge Levine, given his well-publicized medical struggles? Same as we always have, I think. A musician of his caliber would expect and want no less.
Hearing him in the Ruslan and Ludmila overture, I thought of him in another overture—a similar overture, that to The Bartered Bride. Smetana wrote his opera 150 years ago. I don’t think anyone has ever conducted its overture better than Levine.
Check him out with the Vienna Philharmonic, here.
Evgeny Kissin walked out for the Concerto No. 2 in C minor by Rachmaninoff. He is a throwback of a pianist, as I’m always saying. He is a throwback even in his appearance. His bearing is erect and courtly. With that impressive head of hair, he reminds me of . . . I don’t know: Rubinstein (Anton, not Artur)? Paderewski?
To begin the concerto, the pianist plays a famous series of chords. This is not easy to bring off. From Kissin, the chords were very well calibrated. Then the Met orchestra came in with a suitably dark sound.
In the rest of the first movement, Kissin played with brawn and sensitivity (and of course his renowned virtuosity). Tempos were free, and too free. The music could have used more of a pulse, more of a spine. It was far too episodic. Also, coordination between orchestra and soloist was sometimes faulty.
Unless I’m mistaken, Levine never looked at the right side of the orchestra; he looked only to the left, and toward the pianist.
In the middle movement—Adagio sostenuto—Kissin was at his worst. He was that thumping, head-nodding, plodding Kissin, without lyricism. Tempos were very slow, and, more to the point, eccentric. The music risked formlessness.
Kissin began the finale with staggering virtuosity. But, as the movement unfolded, there was surprisingly little fire in it. Surprisingly little thrill. Too often, the music-making, from all involved, was incoherent. An episodic quality again intruded. The notes were there, the music, less so.
For a standing, roaring audience, Kissin played an encore: more Rachmaninoff, the Etude-tableau in E-flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5. Horowitz made all of us familiar with this one, in a certain period. Kissin again had the notes (how could he not?). But his playing was a bit thumpy, head-noddy—labored, and without élan, without thrill.
The audience again stood and roared. And Kissin again played. Two encores after a concerto is rare. Another Russian pianist, Denis Matsuev, played two in this hall, Carnegie, last season. An étude-tableau (a different one) and a Scriabin étude.
What did Kissin play? I’m told it was the “Natha Waltz” from Tchaikovsky’s Six Pieces, Op. 51. I don’t believe I had ever heard it before. It is gay (in the old sense) and slightly splashy. It serves as a wonderfully old-fashioned encore for a throwback of a pianist. Kissin served it up right, it seemed to me.
After intermission, Levine conducted Tchaikovsky’s last symphony: No. 6, the “Pathétique.” I’m going to remark only generally, and briefly. The music was clear, masculine, careful—and a little sleepy. Sometimes dull. That G-major march, for instance—the third movement—was correct but unstirring. The final movement was unusually straightforward. Like much of the score, it was unexploited. Definitely unmilked.
I am always complaining about overmilking. There is such a thing as undermilking, too. But if I could pick my error, it would be the latter: the under variety.
Also, someone with the musicality of James Levine—and there aren’t many—always has a case. He is one of the great musicians of our time, obviously. Forgetting our own time, I have long contended that he is one of the greatest conductors of all time.
He will lead another concert next Thursday: same orchestra, same place. The program will be excerpts from Wagner’s Ring. Have you ever heard a Levine-conducted Ring? I myself am unable to make next week’s concert. I recommend that you beg, borrow, or steal a ticket.