Herbert von Karajan, the venerable conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, fell ill shortly before his orchestra was to leave for its current American tour. At concerts in Ambassador Auditorium Wednesday and Thursday, his place was taken by James Levine, conductor and music director of the Metropolitan Opera.
The Wednesday event could have developed into a gargantuan battle between the spirit of the missing maestro and the will of the visiting one, but nothing of the kind occurred. There was never a moment when one felt that the quality of playing would have been appreciatively different had Karajan conducted rather than Levine.
This does not mean that the players took things in their own hands and went their accustomed way. Nor does it mean that Levine accommodated himself to the orchestra and let it have its head. It means that music was the paramount consideration and that conductor and players cooperated to the fullest.
The revised program presumably was Levine's, and it was a handsome one. The quiet first part allowed appreciation of the Berliners' exquisite sensibility in refined ensembles and their inexhaustible range of rarefied color. Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in the second half raised the roof with the special kind of Dionysian abandon and powerful projection on which the Berliners exercise a virtual monopoly.
Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" became much more than the little Christmas morning staircase serenade for Cosima to celebrate the birth of their only son, Siegfried. Levine never exaggerated its intimate proportions, but neither did he nor the orchestra subdue its heroic intimations. It was brooding Wagner, a reverie on potent ideas of "The Ring," played with care, love and luxurious tone.
The Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss achieved the same end; they disclosed Strauss' autumnal broodings on the mysteries of life, resignation and death, couched in ravishingly beautiful instrumental detail, nurtured to the last degree of poignancy by the conductor and solo players of the orchestra.
The songs also introduced in Cheryl Studer an accomplished and already matured soprano whose light seems destined to cast a strong glow over the coming years. She is an artist of perceptive depths; her warm, bright and, on occasion, powerful voice curved in and around Strauss' touching meditations with a security and felicity of expressiveness that in every detail matched that of the orchestra. She is the mistress of a moving Lied style.
The Beethoven Seventh was hair-raising. The final triumph was Beethoven's; the performance could have been accepted as a blueprint of the composer's intention, so clean on paper, so rarely realized in performance.
It was cyclonic and irresistible, a compendium of Beethoven idiosyncrasies that defined the style but never interfered with the headlong sweep of wildly risky but compellingly exciting tempos. The audience was transported.