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BSO's 'Gurrelieder' is luminous, heartfelt

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, music director
At: Tanglewood, Friday night

LENOX -- The dreaded name of composer Arnold Schoenberg restricted the audience at Tanglewood for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's performance of his ``Gurrelieder" Friday night to 4,793 people, although the weather was beautiful.

What the people who didn't come probably didn't realize is that this massive orchestral song cycle contains some of the most intimate and some of the most sweepingly romantic music that Schoenberg, or anyone else, ever wrote. And disappointing crowds have to be placed in perspective -- on how many occasions anywhere have nearly 5,000 people assembled to hear ``Gurrelieder"?

Before ``Gurrelieder" began, music director James Levine, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to the memory of mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson by performing a movement from Brahms's ``German Requiem," ``How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings." Hunt Lieberson entered the orbit of the BSO as a viola fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in the early '80s and made her debut as a singer with the BSO in 1985; her final appearances with the orchestra, just four months ago, were in ``Gurrelieder" in Symphony Hall followed by tour performances of the ``Neruda Songs," composed for her by her husband, Peter Lieberson.

Levine's association with Hunt Lieberson also included two productions at the Metropolitan Opera. The performance of the Brahms was not merely a run-through; it was detailed, luminous, and heartfelt.

So was ``Gurrelieder," which recounts a tragic legend of death and of life and reunion after death. There were two major changes of cast for Tanglewood. Succeeding Lieberson in the narrative of the Wood-Dove was Waltraud Meier. The German mezzo sang extremely well, with the passionate dramatic delivery of a major stage personality. It was not her fault that she stood in the shadow of the memory of Hunt Lieberson, who suffused this music not just with passion but with compassion for the human condition.

The other new cast member was soprano Christine Brewer , succeeding Karita Mattila . Mattila was more exciting, but Brewer sang the love songs more securely, and more beautifully. She is a cherishable singer, musically and emotionally honest.

Outstanding among the others were the majestically powerful tenor Johan Botha , the imaginative lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani , and the Viennese veteran Waldemar Kmentt , who delivered the astonishing spoken ballad before the final choral sunburst. The orchestral background to the speech is the strangest music in ``Gurrelieder." In most of ``Gurrelieder" Schoenberg is summing up the past, invoking Mahler and actually paraphrasing Wagner, but in this passage Schoenberg leaves the past behind and peers into the future.

The men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus really pumped out the sound in their demanding music. The work is a favorite of Levine's; he knows how it works and how to make it work. The orchestra responded to the conductor and to the challenges of the music with playing that told the story and bathed it in an ardent glow. At the end, the audience stood and applauded with the strength of 10,000.

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