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August 23, 2010

New recording captures James Levine, Boston Symphony in fine form

This is week two of my stay-cation, so please forgive me if I’m not up to my usual earth-shaking form as a blogologist. I’ve still got the occasional thought, even in my mentally reduced state, and I’ll start off this Monday with a word or two about a recording that, for several reasons,  caught my fancy as a listening choice during my time off.

It’s from the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s own label, BSO Classics – an all-Mozart, two-CD release conducted by music director James Levine. Remember James Levine? Assorted physical problems have kept him absent from duty so often and for such long periods of time – lately for back surgery – that he’s frequently the source of speculation and consternation. A recent editorial in the Boston Globe more or less suggested that Levine and the orchestra should be prepared to part ways soon if his nagging medical problems continue.

The Metropolitan Opera has to be a little nervous these days, too, since Levine holds a key musical post there as well, and another season spotted with his canceled podium appearances would likely cause considerable gnashing of teeth in that august house. I can’t recall seeing any updates in quite a while about the conductor’s progress, health-wise. I imagine word will be coming soon enough, though, since

the orchestra and opera company will have to be given enough time before their season-openers to scramble for replacements should Levine need more mending time.

This summer, he was to have been a significant presence at Tanglewood, the idyllic spot in the Berkshires where the Boston Symphony makes its off-season home, but he had to scrap those plans along with so many others. This new Mozart recording provides a reminder of how this orchestra can shine with Levine, and why so many people have been so heartily wishing this guy a speedy recovery.

These live performances, taped in Boston’s iconic Symphony Hall in February 2009, balance  symphonies from Mozart’s teen years – Nos. 14, 18 and 20 – with two of his last three symphonic efforts, Nos. 39 and 41. It’s good to be reminded of the many qualities in those early symphonies, and it’s rewarding to hear the two war horses given such refreshing, stylish treatment. Levine taps into the lyrical beauty of each score with satisfying results, while never slighting propulsion or clarity of texture. The music is alive with nuance, energy, character.

Levine’s affection for Mozart shines through in every measure of what are essentially old-fashioned performances – the kind that orchestras gave before the historical authenticity movement swung into high gear – and he inspires in the Bostonians seemingly effortless refinement of tone and articulation, considerable expressive richness of phrasing.  

If all goes well, conductor and orchestra will soon be back on the same productive path together.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:08 AM | | Comments (1)


I haven't heard this release yet, but I did want to let folks know that it is available for digital download from the Boston Symphony at:

It can be downloaded in a number of formats from mp3 to HD Surround Sound.

However, I'd advise music lovers to investigate the Boston Symphony's Digital Subscription Service - for $50 a year you have access to this release, several other Levine/Boston collaborations (including a stunning Mahler 6th), and the 12 volume Boston Symphony Centennial Set, featuring live performances from 1943 to 2000 featuring, of course, the music directors: Koussevitzky, Munch, Leinsdorf, Steinberg, Monteux and Ozawa, as well as guest conductors including Giulini, Tennstedt, Walter, Haitink, Davis, and more.

There are also a few Pops albums, including a mercifully short "Red Sox" album - thankfully, most of the album is taken up with the National Anthem, God Bless America, The Stars and Stripes Forever with only a few selections specific to the actual baseball team.

And for those ahead of me in the acquisition of electronic toys, the Symphony also has an Itunes App for your iPad, iPhone, or iPad Touch; more information at:

I wonder if our own Baltimore Symphony will start to capitalize on the revenue opportunities that the online sales of digital downloads provides.
I imagine there are some real treasures in the Baltimore Symphony's vaults - certainly all the Casual Concerts that were broadcast music exist; and earlier tapes must have existing at one time - my LP collection includes a BSO sampler of live performances from when Adler was the music director, including an excerpt of Leon Fleischer playing the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" by Rachmaninoff - no doubt at some point a tape of the whole performance existed, and hopefully still exists. Of course, rights would have to be negotiated, but in these economic times it is a shame to pass up any opportunity for revenue.

Thanks for the info about the other BSO and the great point about our BSO. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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