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Beyond perfection

Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony -
Levine's farewell concert in Munich,


Sometimes a concert experience is so overwhelming that it leaves everyone sitting awe-struck, with jaws hinged open, bowled over by genuine excellence. This was the case with James Levine's final performance as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, when he conducted Mahler's Second. There is nothing that needs to be said about the 19 July 2004 concert in Munich, except: Beyond Perfection.

This is coming from someone who is not a Levine-fanatic, yet following such an exceptional concert one may well need to reconsider one's conductor preferences. Two revelations: The term 'As though heard for the first time' comes alive. And one begins to understand -- having listened to Mahler like Mahler should be played: a musical adventure that takes you, body, mind and soul into another world -- why there are Mahler fanatics who travel the world in search of symphony performances, spending a lot of money to listen to the same piece over and over. When Mahler is done correctly, it transcends the normal concert experience, providing a puff of heaven in an otherwise doubtful world.

James Levine is a fine conductor, but he is not necessarily someone from whom as profound an encounter would be expected with a Mahler symphony. On 19 July in Munich, a very special set of circumstances conspired in just the right way to highlight not only the colossal power of good music but also of the human spirit.

Try this for background scenario: an American conductor, after nearly ten years in Munich, knows that it is time to go home. Health-wise, the constant hops back and forth across the Atlantic are becoming a bit of a strain. The orchestra members who initially did not know what to make of him, and ended up fondly calling him 'Jimmy', are a little sad because the jovial American, who brought a breath of fresh air to a very traditional orchestra where conductors are usually addressed as 'Maestro', is giving his final performance as their conductor in residence. The program is Mahler: Das Lied von Der Erde and the Second Symphony: Resurrection. Some of the finest soloists have come to Munich to honor Levine: Swedish star mezzo Anne Sophie von Otter is there, Dorothea Röschmann, and the South African Heldentenor Johan Botha.

From left to right: Dorothea Röschmann, James Levine and Anne Sophie von Otter. Photo: courtesy Munich Philharmonic
From left to right: Dorothea Röschmann, James Levine and Anne Sophie von Otter. Photo: courtesy Munich Philharmonic

Add to this the fact that Mahler's Second is not your average symphony. Like many of his symphonies, it has a mission. This one is to convince man that, although he is mortal, resurrection is certain. In C minor, it contains two stirring vocal sections: in the fourth movement the song Urlicht from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and in the fifth/final movement, the resurrection chorus -- based on the like-named Auferstehungs Ode by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Mahler adapted both these texts to fit his own imagery for the symphony. Then there is the passionate first movement Totenfeier (Memorial Service). Mahler had played this movement for Hans von Bülow in 1891 when the composer still referred to it as symphonic prose, to stand on its own. After a five-year break, Mahler composed the Scherzo (third movement), the Urlicht (fourth movement) and finalized then the Andante (second movement) that he had started in August 1888. During the memorial service for Hans von Bülow, on 29 March 1894 in Hamburg, Mahler had the idea to add a fifth movement in the form of a monumental finale with chorus.

The composer wrote to a friend: 'Bülow died and I attended his memorial service. My mood when I sat there, thinking of the departed, was very much in the sprit of the work I worked on at that time. When the chorus sang the Klopstock-choral, "Resurrection", it was as though lightning struck me and everything became clear in my soul. This is the lightening flash that creative people wait for.'

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Copyright © 27 July 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


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