With a gleaming, glistening chord of purest A major, the man New Yorkers love to call “the Maestro” returned to the concert stage. His last public performance was a Die Walküre in May 2011, one that took its searing emotional power by maintaining the constant impression that it was about to disintegrate musically, just as Wotan’s worlds fell apart on stage and the conductor’s body buckled. It was apt that it was Wagner with which the Maestro returned, in a shining evocation of the sacred land of the Holy Grail. With the prelude to Lohengrin, James Levine was back.

James Levine at Carnegie Hall © Steve J. Sherman, May 2013
James Levine at Carnegie Hall
© Steve J. Sherman, May 2013

It hasn’t been easy for him. Multiple surgeries, false starts, rumours, and pain documented constantly and sometimes tastelessly in the press must surely have been a difficult burden to bear. On the podium, he remains consigned to a motorised wheelchair, for which the stage builders of the Metropolitan Opera have created an ingenious raised platform on which Levine can rotate in circles to take applause. Moreover for this concert they clad it in magnolia fittings so that it blended with the Carnegie Hall stage. His health may have cost him his leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but Levine proudly remains the Music Director of the Met, and countless conversations over the past two years have reminded me how central he has been and still is to New York’s music scene – as well as how strange it can seem to a new New Yorker like me. In this town, only Levine could receive such unstinting loyalty and devotion. The audience showed it too: as he rode serenely forwards from the wings with a dramatic opening of the double stage doors, the roar was deafening, protracted, and earnest. It was undoubtedly deserved, too.

To some extent this concert, the city’s most hotly-anticipated of the year, was always going to be more about its mere completion than about its musical content. In that sense, it was amazing that Levine instantly managed to make the music the thing. What music, too, as he instantly showed the kind of Wagnerian depth that has been notably missing from New York in his absence, Daniele Gatti’s triumphant Parsifal notwithstanding. No other Wagnerian today, not even Daniel Barenboim or Christian Thielemann, can create such an all-encompassing sound, such generosity of tone, such a blend of orchestral sheen in this music. This commanding, extraordinary wave of polish enveloped you in a single inevitable line, cosseted in its inerrant rightness, comforted you in its familiarity even as it forced the hairs on the back of your neck to remain at attention. It was sensuous and yet chaste, yearning and yet denied: that, after all, is Lohengrin’s dilemma (and that of his father, Parsifal).

Levine has always drawn the best from Evgeny Kissin, and in a “just-the-notes-ma’am” performance of Beethoven’s G major concerto we certainly got that. Kissin’s glassy tone is not to all tastes, and rarely to mine, but one had to admire the structural rigour with which he went about the long first movement and the poise he found for the second. Technical standards were obviously high, but with Kissin Beethoven’s wit – the unavoidable side of his idealism and his humanity – was po-faced when not entirely absent, whether in the concerto itself or for Kissin’s encore, the Op. 129 Rondo (better known as the “Rage Over a Lost Penny”). It all reminded me of the probably apocryphal story about conductor George Szell concluding a rehearsal with the comment “Gentlemen, now let us rehearse the spontaneity”. Kissin wasn’t helped by the massive sound Levine conjured from the podium, which, although immaculate, was so stupefyingly, lethargically grand as almost to be self-parodic. For all the torpidity, though, the strength of vision and perfection of individual moments were sufficient reminders of Levine’s considerable talents. The halo of clarinet sound he elicited at the orchestra’s re-entry after the first-movement cadenza, shimmering in praise, was worth the entrance fee alone.

It is easy to forget how good an orchestra the Met has in its pit, and they were on world-beating form for Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony. There was a chunkiness to this, naturally, but Levine created such warmth, flow, and even urgency that one could put that aside. Despite the tonal weight precision seemed easy for these players, especially in a tense first movement kept constantly in a state of transition by a focus on harmonic rhythm. This was playing with the fullest of full bows, with an innate sense of color from all the principal winds, and a rare ability to communicate among the sections. In Levine’s hands this symphony was indomitable, granitic, and ultimately joyous.

The metaphor for his own progress since that Walküre could not have been more obvious. The question is: what next? The summer, in the run-up to a scheduled September run of Così fan tutte, will answer that.