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Mahler conducted the world première of the finished symphony on 13 December 1895. This much for the history of Mahler's Second. Imagine what kind of mood this is going to set for the concert audience: powerful, probing, intimate. Then imagine that, just as they are about to go on stage, the conductor receives word that his friend and colleague Carlos Kleiber has died. Kleiber had actually died on 13 July 2004 but this was not made public until 19 July, at about the time when Levine was to start his concert.

A sometimes difficult genius, son of the equally genial conductor Erich Kleiber, Carlos (1930-2004) had enjoyed a long association with Munich. He could be hard to handle, cancelling a concert because his favorite cellist was not in the orchestra, but he could also be hilariously funny: in 1986, he conducted the Fledermaus at the Munich opera, dressed up as Sergiu Celibidache. In 1996, he took his orchestra to Ingolstadt for a performance and, as payment, asked for the most expensive model of a brand-new Audi: performance in exchange for car. Ingolstadt, of course, is Audi's world headquarters. Kleiber usually shied away from Mahler but in Munich he had conducted the Lied von der Erde, as Levine was about to do.

Carlos Kleiber conducts Brahms. Photo courtesy of Abendzeitung München
Carlos Kleiber conducts Brahms. Photo courtesy of Abendzeitung München

And so, for the first part of the concert, Das Lied von Der Erde, Levine seemed somewhat under the impact of the sad news, conducting even more sparingly than is his habit, frequently with one hand or just by minute finger movement, the orchestra at times seeming to be held together by the first violin and first viola (none other than Helmut Nicolai, who knows about running an orchestra from his close association with Sergiu Celibidache).

James Levine (with Helmut Nicolai rear-left). Photo: courtesy Munich Philharmonic
James Levine (with Helmut Nicolai rear-left). Photo: courtesy Munich Philharmonic

The Lied von der Erde was still rather good, carried by the excellent performance, mainly, of Anne-Sofie von Otter, who came across like a Nordic angel with her white-blond hair, tall Swedish good looks and divine voice. When he left the stage for the concert break, a visibly moved Levine told our photographer as he passed: 'Carlos is dead. This concert is for him.'

Nothing gave an indication of the magnificent performance that was to follow. All of the reviewers present and many in the audience had heard Mahler's Second before, but never like that. From the first note to the end, this particular Mahler Second was beyond perfection, with everyone involved giving their best, perhaps even more, in a touching final farewell from one great conductor to another great conductor.

In the fourth movement, Anne-Sofie von Otter had about half of the concert hall in tears, and people passing tissues to one another, when she sang Urlicht. Standing alone, with her white hair complementing her blue dress, among the dark-dressed orchestra and chorus still sitting down, she produced a staggering image: of retreat from the world and, carried by her rich, yielding voice, of an immaculate ascent heavenward. James Levine conducted his heart out, everyone played to perfection. Von Otter's 'I am from God and want to return to God, dear God will shine me a light to guide me to eternal life' went through to the core so that one could almost envision the departed soul on his final way home.

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Copyright © 27 July 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


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