PARIS - With an itinerary that would exhaust even the most intrepid traveler, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been making its way through Europe for the last two weeks, beginning with three concerts in Lucerne, Switzerland, and continuing on to Germany with performances in Hamburg, Essen, and Düsseldorf. This is the first international tour the BSO has made under music director James Levine, and reports from part one suggest a string of successes. At the first Lucerne program, Levine uncharacteristically played an encore at the piano - a surprise world premiere of a work called "Matribute" by Elliott Carter, written for the conductor in May and dedicated to Levine's 92-year-old mother. One Swiss critic described the evening as "an adventure in tonal sensitivity."
I caught up with the orchestra in Berlin, where it played on Monday night in the city's legendary Philharmonie and was broadcast live on German national radio. I then followed the orchestra to Paris, where on Tuesday night, the musicians fanned out in crisp black tie across the stage of the city's Salle Pleyel in the fashionable eighth arrondissement. The Berlin concert in particular found the orchestra sounding at the very top of its game, and both nights were extremely well received.
In Berlin, the architect Hans Scharoun's Philharmonie is a curvaceous yellow fortress on the periphery of the Potsdamer Platz, the former no-man's-land that is now a head-swirling showcase of modern architecture and capitalist dreams. But there is no holding history at bay in Berlin; it is inscribed, quite literally, into the pavement. Walk to the Philharmonie from the subway, and you can pass a double row of bricks laid into the street. They indicate the spot where the Wall once stood; nearby are several monuments and museums that remember Berlin's darkest hours.
To this city so indelibly marked by the 20th century the BSO brought an almost entirely 20th-century program: Ives's "Three Places in New England," Ravel's Piano Concerto in G with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the soloist, and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra as well as a recent work, "Three Illusions" by Carter, a composer who at 98 has lived through it all.
The concert was sold out. Outside the hall, in addition to a man selling pretzels, some would-be concert-goers held signs in search of an extra ticket. Inside the hall, a well-heeled crowd, impressively diverse in age, took their seats. The conductor Simon Rattle and the Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena were among them.
The Ives that opened the Berlin program sounded much improved since last heard at Tanglewood in August, whether from the repeat performances on tour or the superb acoustics of the Philharmonie. The string sound was more focused, allowing the work's many overlapping layers to come through with striking clarity, and the roiling second movement showcased the winds and brass at their virtuosic best. Carter is a natural in the company of Ives, and "Three Illusions" came off as bright, clear, and vivid, combining an all-American Ivesian vigor with a French sense of textural delicacy and the nuances of tonal color.
Aimard brilliantly dispatched the outer movements of the Ravel and gently floated the long lines of the ruminative slow movement, complemented by Robert Sheena's fine English horn playing. An electrifying reading of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra drew prolonged applause from the Berliners, who called Levine back for seven curtain calls. The conductor responded by leading the orchestra in two encores, before finally grabbing concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and escorting him off the stage, signaling that it was time to go home, or, rather, to France.
In Paris, the program was Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust." The freshly renovated Salle Pleyel, which re-opened last year, has a clear if slightly tight acoustic, but the most striking thing on Tuesday night was the chorus's placement on a balcony raised high above the orchestra, making for maximum force and clarity of sound. As for the work itself, the orchestra performed it last season alone in Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Tanglewood before bringing it on tour. Berlioz has more generally enjoyed a privileged place in the orchestra's repertoire since the era of Charles Münch.
On Tuesday night, there were some passing lapses in ensemble precision in the first half, perhaps suggesting the wearying effects of a long tour, but the orchestra delivered where it mattered. The brass had a brilliant sheen without sounding forced, the strings had a particularly bass-rich blend but were also lithe and nimble on top, escorting Faust to hell with due crispness and polish. The soloists yielded more mixed results. Yvonne Naef sang a rich, creamy-toned Marguerite, and José van Dam was a very elegant Mephistopheles. His voice has worn thin at the seams but he still deploys it very stylishly. Marcello Giordani sang ardently but often with more of an Italianate flair, struggling intermittently with his French diction and often seeming stylistically adrift. The bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi made smooth work of the smaller part of Brander. But the spotlight grabber of the evening was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which sounded in superb form and deservedly drew the biggest cheers.
Five curtain calls later, the BSO was boarding large buses parked in front of the hall. Next stop: London.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.