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Levine and Silja demonstrate skill and star power

The first program of James Levine's ambitious, two-season Beethoven/Schoenberg project to present works by both composers in significant juxtaposition fell to the Boston Symphony Chamber Players yesterday. There was also a memorable guest, legendary diva Anja Silja.

Beethoven's ''An die ferne Geliebte" and Schoenberg's ''Pierrot lunaire" found both composers pushing the envelope for vocal music; in Beethoven's Quintet for Piano and Winds and Schoenberg's ''Six Little Piano Pieces," Op. 19, each composer conquered self-imposed technical problems of the kind that each rejoiced in.

At the piano Levine collaborated with tenor Ben Heppner in Beethoven cycle, offering more ''interpretation" in fact than the singer did -- the piano part calls for nature-painting, and Levine delivered it. Heppner's singing was smooth and honest, and achieved a true vocal and emotional climax at the end. Levine was nimble-fingered in the Quintet and the Chamber Players operated with exceptional interactive finesse.

Levine has been playing Schoenberg pieces since he was 13 and caught all that is quirky, self-contradictory, and implicative in these brief works. He brings a conductor's rhythmic drive and projection to his playing, but also purely pianistic qualities -- true legato, for one thing, and uncommon command of dynamics. He can produce and project a pianissimo without the assistance of the soft pedal, which he used only in the last Schoenberg piece, for color.

Stravinsky, Ravel, and Puccini attended early performances of ''Pierrot' and took what they needed from this extraordinary setting of 21 macabre poems by Albert Giraud for narrator and chamber ensemble. Listening to the crackly old records of the great German actor Alexander Moissi, it is clear that Schoenberg's wish for a style poised between speaking and singing, so puzzling to today's ears, was a way of notating the expressionistic delivery in the spoken theater of his time.

Levine conducted ''Pierrot" in a minimalist fashion, but seven BSO musicians and pianist Randall Hodgkinson played with unusual character, subtlety, and finesse for Silja. Dressed in black, with a striking Jugendstil jacket, the ash-blond soprano still radiates glamour after 50 years before the public; she's the Marlene Dietrich of opera. She found a personal balance between speech and song, delivering clear, steady tone over a range of two and a half octaves and inflecting the text with the assurance of a native speaker, the accuracy of a superb musician, and the imagination of an immense theatrical personality -- if the text mentions a ''pizzicato," she delivered one with her voice. ''Pierrot" was premiered as music theater; Silja's presence made it that again.

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