Music Review: Next off the production line

Verdi's Requiem and Mahler's Eighth - the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand" - in one week. Grand and grander, big and biggest - James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, must have felt right at home. And, as if to ensure that he did, these operatic sojourns into the concert hall were cast accordingly. A succession of Met luminaries, old and new, starry and would-be starry, shared his limelight. Only Luciano Pavarotti, succumbing to the flu, failed to materialise. But, this being that time of the year (out with the old, in with the new), the young pretender, Roberto Alagna, was conveniently waiting, if not in the wings, then in Milan, when the call went out.

He came, he sang, but he remained anonymous. Which made him the perfect tenor soloist for this particular performance of the Verdi. Not one single phrase was shaped with interest, with imagination, with that innate sense of the personal. The distinction between simple and plain, understated and uninteresting, is something that Alagna as yet fails to grasp. This is a terrific voice, but it's a faceless voice, it doesn't speak with any real strength of character. Neither did Levine. For the most seasoned of opera conductors, his was the most un-seasoned and un-operatic of readings. And don't say that sacred Verdi should be approached with a different set of priorities, because the music says otherwise.

The opening "Requiem" should both evoke and invoke awe, the murmuring of many voices emerging from darkness in search of perpetual light. But Levine was already too loud, the Philharmonia's muted strings too present, the sizeable Philharmonia Chorus - here celebrating its 40th anniversary - too distinct. It could be that Levine was simply misjudging the dryness and immediacy of an unfamiliar hall (the antiphonal trumpettings of the Tuba mirum went for nothing, swallowed up somewhere backstage). But much of the atmosphere is written into this music if the conductor will only yield to it. Levine seemed far too preoccupied with outward appearances. His reading was almost entirely about articulation - the tyranny of articulation: rhythm, accent, contour. He looked after, even nursed his soloists - he always does - but offered no real motivation for them to "sing freely". His radiant soprano, Renee Fleming (beautiful in the testing a cappella of the "Libera me"), and idiomatic mezzo, Luciana D'Intino, both found and shaped meaningful individual phrases, but their voices were not well matched, D'Intino's tending to pop in and out of focus at different parts of the register. The basso nobile, Roberto Scandiuzzi, posseses more artistry than his voice is sometimes capable of expressing. The reverse of Alagna, who managed to deny even the shining mezza voce of the "Hostias" its wonder.

Mahler's Eighth - at the Royal Albert Hall, Sunday - came care of Raymond Gubbay's week-long Christmas Festival (why?) with its own gaudy, holly- festooned programme and a ruinous interval between Parts 1 and 2. Levine should have vetoed that. Or maybe he saw it as a natural extension of those interminable inter-act curtain calls back home at the Met? In the event, it did nothing but compromise the continuity of a reading which, stylistically speaking, bore all the hallmarks of Levine and few of Mahler. Why, even the generous larding of string portamento that attended the arrival of the purple-hazed Mater Gloriosa theme in Part 2 sounded like a special offer for that moment only.

By and large, it was a precisioned delivery of the vast score, the Veni, creator spiritus setting seemingly unencumbered by the sheer weight of choral numbers in forging a true symphonic allegro. But what of the troubled, the exalted spirit that moves it in such mysterious ways? What of the inner-light? We glimpsed it through the operatic posturings of Part 2. Decent soloists, not least soprano Jane Eaglen (a shining presence on the top line), mezzo Michelle DeYoung, and the brave if none too rapturous tenor Johan Botha, carried the message convincingly forward. And Levine certainly screwed his courage to the sticking place in taking a swooningly slow view of the spangled final paragraphs. But what were the extra brass choir doing on the platform? In this of all halls they should be positioned at the farthest remove from it, "on high" as Mahler directs, so that the trumpets, stretching the interval of the Veni, creator spiritus motif from a seventh to a major ninth, seem almost to be reaching for the stars in the final bars. No true Mahlerian would have countenanced such unwarranted myopia.

Levine's Mahler Eight broadcast on Boxing Day at 7pm on Radio 3

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