Levine, MET musicians deliver madcap humor before spiritual solace
It is a tribute to the brilliance of the MET Orchestra’s musicians that a brief squib by Pierre Boulez—whose works they rarely play—received such a glistening reading with James Levine at the helm.
Dérive 1 made a sensational opener for this Zankel Hall concert, with Levine and an expert sextet: Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson (flute), Jessica Phillips (clarinet), Gregory Zuber (vibraphone), Bryan Wagnorn (piano), Nancy Wu (violin), and Joel Noyes (cello). Starting with volleys of trills, Boulez constructs an intense fluttering motion, which gradually subsides into near stasis. At scarcely seven minutes long, it made a tasty aperitif that also reaffirmed Levine’s canny programming instincts. His appearances also have to be savored, given how his health issues may dictate the future.
Baritone John Moore joined the conductor and an octet for Poulenc’s Le Bal Masqué, an effervescent soufflé with texts by Max Jacob, the surrealist writer. The madcap scoring (which includes castanets and a police whistle) offers nonstop delights, evoking the droll timing of the film director Jacques Tati. After the “Preamble and Bravura Air”—which Moore delivered at a rapid-fire pace with an accompanying aural circus—came a relatively prim, urbane “Interlude,” pulsing with motoric rhythms. The opening of “Malvina” is almost shouted: Here’s something I hope will frighten you/Miss Malvina hasn’t let go of her fan since she died./Her pearl-gray glove is spangled with gold./She corkscrews like a gypsy waltz. Moore and the ensemble were expansive, melodramatic, and hilarious.
A tortured “Bagatelle” with the pianist merrily banging away at the lower end of the keyboard, sets up “The Blind Lady,” with the title character hissed in a conspiratorial whisper at the end. The first line of the finale is “Crippled repairer of old motorcars,” which should give listeners an idea of the lunacy in store, and again Moore seemed completely enveloped in Poulenc’s universe, singing with elegance, impressive resonance and diction, and a more than a soupcon of humor. Phillips, Wu, Noyes, and Zuber were joined by Elaine Douvas (oboe), Patricia Rogers (bassoon), David Krauss (cornet), and Nimrod David Pfeffer (piano), in a giddy, rocket blast of a reading that drew laughter from many in the audience.
The mood changed radically after intermission, with Wagorn (who also serves as one of the Met’s assistant conductors) joined by three of the Met Orchestra’s principals—David Chan (violin), Rafael Figueroa (cello), and Boris Allakhverdyan (clarinet)—in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1940-1941). Famously written while the composer was a prisoner of war, the quartet’s fragile beauty can be difficult to bring off. A devout Catholic, Messiaen matches religious imagery with music of naked intensity, which reaches its first peak in the third movement, “The Abyss of the Birds,” for clarinet alone. Allakhverdyan offered near-miraculous crescendos from total silence, coupled with unwavering control and pristine intonation.
In “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” for cello and piano, Figueroa’s graceful phrases were often delivered in a near-whisper. But softness sometimes speaks more eloquently, and as he and Wagorn progressed—the latter in steady, hushed chords—the impression left in their wake was one of penitence and strength.
The sixth movement, “Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets,” is a long unison for all four musicians, and requires attention to tricky rhythmic patterns, coupled with exacting tuning. One false move and the elaborate structure—which grows in speed and intensity—falls apart. In the seventh section, Messiaen shows his true colors: his religious fervor offers consolation but also a bit of terror, a dramatic preface to the luminous finale, “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.”
Chan paused a moment, as if collecting his thoughts, and then over Wagorn’s ethereal pairs of chords, let the composer’s sublime simplicity unfold. The peace and reverence radiating from these two extraordinary musicians felt even more exalted and appropriate than usual, perhaps with the world’s unstable climate adding some sober context. Messiaen’s masterpiece should be heard live just to be reminded of its greatness, and I doubt a more piercing interpretation will come this way any time soon.