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Then the chorus, singing together with the soloists: 'You were not born in vain, did not live, suffer in vain ... nothing is lost, yours is what you have longed for, what you have loved, what you have fought for ... you will be resurrected, my heart, what you have been beating for will carry you upward to God,' in the fifth movement, had the audience literally lost for words and even claps after the final note.

It had been so completely overwhelming an experience that, for a while, nobody seemed able to move. Levine had taken everyone along on his very personal journey through Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and now people were only slowly returning from the melodious heaven they had been shown. A lady who sat beside me, and had handed me a neighborly tissue for Urlicht, seemed as far away as did the conductor, the violinist, the organiser, the soloists ... -- thus was the power of Mahler's music when unleashed with such might and bravery.

Everyone seemed momentarily snuggled up in a place of musical perfection, where Levine and Mahler had carried their audience and musicians. They had all joined in the farewell to Kleiber. Nobody had been left indifferent to the lordly distinction with which the American had guided his orchestra and the soloists through what will probably make history as one of Levine's finest Mahler performances, ever. Noiselessly, overwhelmed, the audience exhibited the effect of having been subjected to an otherworldly experience, radiating complete approval. Levine had won them all over. There had been such a rare and complete harmony between orchestra, soloists, conductor and audience that it seemed disagreeable to break the spell still binding everyone together. When the approval finally unburdened, there was clapping, cheering, standing ovations, in an open acknowledgement of the artistic greatness that had just been witnessed.

Those who were present will never forget von Otter's Urlicht, and the comment from one audience member to another, overheard after the performance, was: 'She is not just wonderful, she is like something divine come to earth'. On that day, it was not far off. Von Otter reinvented the terms aristocracy and dignity, mutating into a perfectly singing Nordic angel.

This was a performance that will likely never happen again in that way. Hearing of the death of a friend just before conducting the Resurrection Symphony is a tragic turn of events that may result in a one-in-a-million performance but still, one may wish, in the interests of humanity though not music, that this set of circumstances will not repeat itself for another conductor.

A once-in-a-lifetime performance: James Levine conducts Mahler's Second Symphony. Photo: courtesy Munich Philharmonic
A once-in-a-lifetime performance: James Levine conducts Mahler's Second Symphony. Photo: courtesy Munich Philharmonic

'I have known Levine for a long time, and played under him,' says Helmut Nicolai, first viola at the Munich Philharmonic. 'Our relationship goes back to his Berlin days, when I was still in Berlin, too. I must say that this was one of the very best performances ever with him. It was so grand, so moving.'

Copyright © 27 July 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


James Levine's 19 July 2004 farewell concert was recorded by the Munich Philharmonic. Dieter Öhms, of the Öhms Classics label, is currently doing his best to make this exceptional performance available to the wider public, beyond the privileged audience that was lucky enough to have been here.

Special thanks to Angelika Rössler of Abendzeitung München for help with photographs.






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