Music Review

Levine returns from leave to lead BSO

Conductor James Levine and pianist Pierre Laurent Aimard starred in last night’s clear, exacting performance of Elliott Carter’s “Dialogues.’’ Conductor James Levine and pianist Pierre Laurent Aimard starred in last night’s clear, exacting performance of Elliott Carter’s “Dialogues.’’ (Michael J. Lutch/Boston Symphony Orchestra)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / January 29, 2010

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Those taut, jagged lines of Elliott Carter’s music darting around the Symphony Hall stage could mean only one thing. James Levine is back in town.

After a leave for back surgery that kept him out of circulation for almost the entire fall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director returned to the podium last night. “No words could possibly express how thrilled I am to be back here,’’ he wrote in the program book. From the stage he gave a quick wave, and then got straight to work on one of the most passionate (and controversial) projects of his tenure - championing the music of Carter. The composer’s “Dialogues’’ was the opening work on this intriguing program built mostly around the theme of musical conversations.

Each era has its own conversation style, and last night made a parallel point with musical dialogue. Carter’s 2003 work for piano and orchestra is fractured, angular, and constantly shifting in mood. The work begins with a solo for English horn, a rather pensive soliloquy, replied to by a curt and forceful piano and an even fiercer orchestra. The musical banter grows increasingly dense but remains remarkably lucid, even as the interlocutors at times drift to distant poles of sentiment. Pierre Laurent Aimard was the brilliant soloist in last night’s clear, exacting performance.

The conversation theme continued with Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,’’ which is not a true concerto but still places a soloist and orchestra in dialogue. The solo viola is a kind of questing Romantic hero, ruminating, commenting, singing from mountaintops. Principal violist Steven Ansell and the orchestra gave it a dynamic, robust performance.

Aimard returned on the second half with Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein (the philosopher’s brother), who lost his right arm in World War I. Several pieces in the repertoire meditate on the futility of war, but this work places its brutal physical toll front and center. Ravel accepted the constraint as a challenge, and he gives the left hand a workout, with many passages deftly mirroring the effect of two-handed playing. Aimard’s performance was alert, sharply etched, and remarkably virtuosic.

The evening closed with the Second Suite from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.’’ Levine and the orchestra’s past traversals of this work have showcased more sonic opulence and precision of detail, but the sheer visceral immediacy of the playing last night was irresistible.