Conductor James Levine’s physical frailty these days has inevitably meant that his appearances have become fewer and further between, and there was certainly the atmosphere of a special occasion for this concert with the Staatskapelle Berlin. There was no concession on the repertoire, though, even if we did end up having an interval after the first movement of Mahler’s massive Third Symphony. With various other delays, the evening ended running to two hours and 20 minutes.

James Levine conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Thomas Bartilla

Levine’s tempos also played a role, and right from the start of the opening movement, it was clear he was not going to be rushed. After an arrestingly played opening theme, the horns ringing out magnificently, Levine brought a brooding deliberateness and imposing sense of vastness to the heavy, weary thuds and rumbles that follow.

Even in the movement’s wildest passages, played with vivid, slick virtuosity by the Staatskapelle, there was a sense of control: the martial outbursts had a languorous splendour to them, the ear-splitting climaxes a musical purpose. There was some wonderful playing, not least from the principal trombone in his many solos, delivered with doleful tenderness. And throughout, there were gains to be had from the flexible, lucid sound of the orchestra, which, combined with the Philharmonie’s clear acoustic, made for a Mahler Three of rare transparency.

This conductor has certainly lost nothing of his ability to bind together disparate elements into a grand whole, either, and the drama was whipped up with the sort of steady hand you'd expect from the veteran of some 2,500 performances at the Met. I wondered, however, whether this easy command was really what is needed in this work, a sprawling giant that stretches symphonic form and probes the boundary between musical propriety and a wilder sort of expressiveness. There was arguably too little sense of uncertainty and experimentation: Levine’s response to a composer pushing boundaries, it seemed, was simply to readjust those boundaries – a munificent solution, no doubt, but not necessarily the right one.  

The central movements similarly offered playing and conducting of the highest quality, with Levine bringing to it all a patrician control of colour and pace. The Tempo di menuetto was gently lilting, if a little safe and under-characterised in its faster central section. The dewily pastoral Comodo third movement, with fine work from the off-stage post-horn player, was dreamily seductive. Here, as throughout the work, there was outstanding solo work from concertmaster Wolfram Brandl.

Violeta Urmana was an authoritative, vocally impeccable soloist in the fourth movement’s Nietzsche setting – the tone rounded and rich, if perhaps not ideally Erda-esque, the line superbly steady. She seemed a little less at home in the Wunderhorn fifth movement among the rough and tumble (and occasionally suspect tuning) of the children’s choruses. The women of the Staatsoper’s chorus were, as one would expect, impeccable.

There were plenty more musical delights in the glorious finale. The playing was again wonderful, the Staatskapelle strings tenderly expressive, the winds eloquent and plangent, the brass mellow and resonant. The conducting was masterful, too, the whole movement sustained as if in one vast legato phrase, ebbing and flowing in the most seductive waves of sound.

I wondered once more if such accomplishment came at the cost of slightly diminished emotional impact – I’ve been more moved by this movement in the past – but it was certainly mightily impressive, as was the whole performance.