Nov. 17, 2007 concert reviewed by Karl Henning.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 17 November 2007
James Sommerville, horn
James Levine, conducting
Haydn, Symphony No. 104 in D, London
Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto (2006), world premiere
Mahler, Symphony No. 1 in D
What a wonderful and rare occasion is the world premiere of a piece, and in the presence of the composer, who will be marking his ninety-ninth birthday in a scant few weeks. Every now and then you read an indulgent piece of music journalism which bemoans the alleged “death” of classical music; Saturday night in Symphony Hall, on the contrary, was an energetic and vital celebration of an art not only still in practice, but in full stride.
James Levine’s reading of Haydn’s final symphony was a good improvement on a performance a few seasons back by a guest conductor (that performance was certainly competent and congenial, but little more). The finale was perhaps a bit more driven on Saturday than may quite have suited the score; and that is possibly the most pronounced quibble with an interpretation which skirts the description mannered.
Overall, it was fresh, lively music-making. Levine omitted the repeat of the first-movement exposition, which I might not have commented on, only later in the Mahler, he observed the corresponding repeat; and it seemed to me a bit odd to give the later composer the preferential treatment in this question (not a great deal of time was shaved off the concert, by striking that repeat in the Haydn, for instance).
Carter’s new Horn Concerto runs about 12 minutes by the clock, and so must probably be considered (relatively speaking) a minor work; but the soloist finds a lot of living in that brief time, and James Sommerville’s labors (which he carried with becoming lightness) were easily the equivalent of many another composer’s major concerto. While at work on the piece, Carter himself was surprised at how easily Sommerville read some rapid figuration in some of the sketches.
The Concerto is lissome and beguiling, and was very warmly received. I drew at least one puzzled stare when I called for an encore, but I was in earnest; the piece was short enough, and I’ve been to other concerts where a relatively brief new work was given a second time immediately, especially on the audience’s demand. The piece is nimble, and takes several rapid turns of texture and character entirely in keeping with Carter’s style; like most of his music, I feel that I want another listen or two to get a better grasp of things, but one thing I liked immediately and which lingers in memory was a lovely duet between the tuba and the soloist.
The composer is said currently to be working on a flute concerto. Carter came out on stage at the Concerto’s end to receive warm applause from the whole audience. At the intermission, when I chanced upon the composer and congratulated him on a delightful piece, his face beamed with pleasure as he replied, “They played just beautifully.”
James Levine is entirely in his element with Mahler, as both last week’s luminous account of the Ninth, and this week’s First Symphony amply demonstrate. Levine and the BSO paced the whole symphony very well, indeed, and the series of brass climaxes in the fourth movement were expertly shaped. I looked across the aisle at one point in a lyrical passage of the fourth movement, and saw Elliott Carter, his eyes closed in calm concentration. His right hand motioned gently, describing a short arc reflecting the musical line.
Mahler’s music is so much of its time and place in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and Carter is so vividly associated with music of a cast so entirely different to Mahler’s, that it was perhaps only as I saw this living master seated in the Hall during the Mahler, that it occurred to me that these two composers’ lives overlapped by a sliver of time; that in fact Carter was born in New York City in December of a year that Mahler conducted performances of the Metropolitan Opera.