MUSIC / Sum of the parts: Anthony Payne on James Levine and the Philharmonia in concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Within the space of four days last week James Levine directed the Philharmonia orchestra on the South Bank in two of the mightiest expressions of 19th-century romanticism, Mahler's Third Symphony and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. The iconoclastic impulse in both works and the forward-looking spirit astounds the listener: Berlioz, as so often, creates outside his own time, while Mahler already seems to be living in the 20th century during parts of a symphony completed in 1896. On Wednesday, Levine was a tower of strength here, controlling the overwhelming contrasts and proliferating structures with passionate emotional involvement and a majestic command of symphonic processes.

The Philharmonia responded with playing of marvellous virtuosity and finesse, whether in the wild bellowings of Mahler's primeval opening or in the sophisticated yet deeply touching tales that his animals, wild flowers and morning bells tell later in the symphony. While, in the incandescent final paean to love, Levine achieved that most difficult feat of imbuing a genuinely slow adagio tempo with an inexorable forward motion.

In such an interpretation, the Third confirms itself as the most daring and quintessentially Mahlerian symphony of them all. Even the most sympathetic commentators have sometimes found the work's overall structure less than worthy of its individual visionary moments. But when performed, as here, at white heat, the symphony's unorthodoxies seem gloriously justified.

On Saturday evening Levine scored another personal triumph with his dazzlingly coloured and superbly dramatic direction of Berlioz's Faust. Again the Philharmonia played magnificently for him, rising to the demands of the composer's unique instrumental imagination with exquisite style. Now brilliantly physical, now chaste in its spirituality, the playing was perfectly attuned to Berlioz's world of feeling: the questing Faust and sardonic Mephistopheles were characterised as surely as the dreaming Marguerite, while the wild ride to the abyss was conjured with cinematic power - demons calling, horrific birds flapping and monsters howling. The tender and gossamer atmospheres were as acutely focused as the spectacular and extravagant, and the 'Dance of the Sylphs' achieved a dream- like delicacy that existed on the very edge of silence.

In this opera of the imagination dramatic involvement on the part of all vocalists is absolutely essential, not least the chorus, who have to present drunken students, soldiers, peasants and demons with equal conviction. This the Philharmonia Chorus and New London Children's Choir did with enormous gusto, taking horrified shrieks and seraphic carolling in their stride.

The soloists were no less vividly conscious of the drama, although the actual vocal quality of much of the singing was questionable. Roderick Earle was a lively Brander and Jose van Dam stole the show with his suavely insinuating Mephistopheles, but Gary Lakes, although tackling the most demanding of roles staunchly, was a rather thin-toned Faust, while Maria Ewing, as Marguerite, swooned and swooped in a way that suggested vocal insecurity rather than convincing characterisation.

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