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Levine's Munich Years

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L. van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7, and R. Wagner Siegfried, Act III, J. Levine, Munich Philharmonic
The German Oehms label brings us a good "Levine: The Munich years" retrospective, now finished with volume eight. The Munich Philharmonic (I am biased to this premiere orchestral body from my hometown) is one of the handful best orchestras in Germany, though I suppose that among good orchestras the condition on a given day is more important than ratings, which are difficult to quantify. (The other great symphony orchestras are the Berlin Philharmonic, of course, the underrated Bamberg SO, the Bavarian RSO, the NDR SO, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester.)

While I am far more excited about Christian Thielemann having taken over the MuPhil than I am or was about Levine's tenure, it is good to have Levine's account with this orchestra available. (Thielemann's debut as resident conductor was Bruckner's 5th Symphony, the work with which Furtwängler and Celibidache opened their tenures, and I count the days until DG releases the recording, at 82 minutes the longest that DG ever squeezed onto one disc.
Update: the CD has been released, my review can be read here.)

These Oehm discs are mostly stuff for Levine- and MuPhil-aficionados, perhaps more so for the former, because it gives us the opportunity to hear excellently captured live recordings of material that Levine loved but was and is unable to champion in front of his more conservative U.S. audiences in New York and Boston. Carter, Wuorinen, Schoenberg, Webern are all present. Indeed, his Gurrelieder is one of the finest I have heard on disc and has by far the greatest mainstream appeal of the issues, so far.

But of course there are also a few standards – and such concerts were recorded in February 2001 (his acclaimed "Beethoven-Schoenberg" season) and June 2000. Beethoven's 7th and Wagner's Siegfried, Act III respectively. The Beethoven is a free-roaming, or rather, free running, jumping performance with excitement of the moment well caught. It has drive and is as topsy-turvy as the 7th should be; in short, an eminently worthy 7th that pleased the audience and is fit to continue to do so on disc.

The Wagner is a bit more a curator's egg. Who really wants just the third act of Siegfried? It's likely to be nothing or all for the listener at home. Linda Watson has some very nice moments as Brünnhilde, and behind her is the glorious sheen of the Munich strings. Levine is particularly good at "moments" in Wagner (judging from his Ring Cycle and the Parsifal DVD I have seen, he's not a man for the continuous flow of narrative), so it's pleasant to listen to. Ben Heppner's Siegfried is better than most Siegfrieds these days. Brigitte Svendén gives sound advice to the Wanderer, whose organ (his voice, that is) is one size too small (James Morris).

While the Gurrelieder disc is near-indispensable, this one will probably only interest fans of LvB's 7th who happen to like Levine. As such it will easily live up to high expectations.

The "Documents of the Munich Years" series consists of

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Volume 1 Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

[There are four, maybe five excellent Gurrelieder recordings – this is one of them!]

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Volume 2 Carter, Variations for Orchestra; Wuorinen, Grand Bamboula; Sessions, Concerto for Piano; Di Domenica, Symphony

[A collection of the American Avant-garde abroad: James H. North, reviewing for Fanfare, wrote of this: “The Munich orchestra’s playing is elegant throughout, somewhat more restrained than one hears from the best American orchestras. These live performances are surprisingly error-free, until some tricky passagework in Di Domenico’s symphony gives the horns a tough time. The recorded sound is intimate and agreeable. Sensible notes in German and English include an informative one-page bio of conductor Levine. This is one of the most fascinating discs in this fine series.”

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Volume 3 Mahler: Symphony No.9

[This will be brilliant to some, perverse to others. No last movement of the Ninth is stretched to such (heavenly?) lengths. This is Levine doing to Mahler what Celibidache did to Bruckner. Those who attended the performances were and still are entirely enthralled with it, for newcomers it might take an open mind.]

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Volume 4 Weber: Oberon Overture; Copland: Clarinet Concerto; Mozart: Symphony No.39; Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

[A potpourri – but an interesting one with especially fine performances of the Copland and Weber.]

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Volume 5Bartók: Bluebeard’s Caste, Miraculous Mandarin, Piano Concerto No.3

[An excellent Bartók disc, lead by a cinematic, if not entirely idiomatic, Bluebeard that – were it not for lack of a libretto – could well make a first choice. Singing are John Tomlinson, and Kremena Dilcheva.]

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Volume 6Brahms: Symphony No.1, Schicksalslied op.54

[One of four Brahms’ First with the Munich Philharmonic in just two decades – Günter Wand, Sergiu Celibidache, and Christian Thielemann have also recorded. This is the only I haven’t heard.]

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Volume 7Gerswhin, Cuban Overture; Harbison, Symphony No.3; Ives, Symphony No.2

[More of Levine’s missionary streak –a fine compilation of American masters that gives a hint of some of his Boston activities that were to come.]

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Volume 8Beethoven, Symphony No.7; Wagner, Siegried, 3rd Act

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Complete 12 CD box of Volumes 1-8

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