Concertgoers who in June 1999 turned up at the Waldbühne expecting the Berliner Philharmoniker to perform lightweight orchestral works at its traditional end-of-season concert had a surprise in store. On the podium was James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1976 to 2016, who together with Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner presented a programme of late Romantic masterpieces by Wagner and Richard Strauss. Dramatically speaking, the evening spanned a wide range of works from two tone poems by the young Strauss, Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel, to orchestral versions of some of his most famous songs and excerpts from well-known music dramas by both composers, including Der Rosenkavalier, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, ending with the indestructible Ride of the Valkyries.
The evening was launched with an ebullient performance of Strauss’s tone poem about the eternal womanizer Don Juan, a work based on Lenau’s verse epic of the same name, which includes the lines “Up and away to ever new conquests as long as youth’s heartbeat continues to pulse!” The three orchestral songs Heimliche Aufforderung, Zueignung and Cäcilie were a reminder that Ben Heppner began his career as a lyric tenor before graduating to heavier heldentenor roles, a development that benefited the Italian Singer’s aria from Der Rosenkavalier. Walther’s Prize Song from Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin’s Grail Narration were both veritable jewels of the art of singing heard here in performances made all the more precious for the fact that Heppner – widely regarded as the leading Tristan of his generation – ended his operatic career in 2014.
James Levine is another experienced Wagnerian – he appeared regularly on Bayreuth’s Green Hill from 1982 to 1998. Under his direction the Prelude and Transfiguration from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde reflected the composer’s ideas right down to the very last detail: “Their feelings evolve from the most timid remonstration at their sense of insatiable longing, from the most tender and tremulous yearning to the most terrible of all outbursts in which they admit their hopeless love, passing through every phase of their unwinnable battle against the inner fire that consumes them.” A rousing performance of the Ride of the Valkyries was followed by a second encore in the form of the inevitable Berliner Luft, providing more than twenty thousand concertgoers in the vast outdoor arena with a satisfying conclusion to a wonderful concert beneath the starry night sky.