I have long put off writing this review because I was afraid my puny words could not match this recording, which is one of the very finest in my collection of 3,000+ classical CDs. I have about a dozen recordings of this work, as it's my favorite violin concerto (sorry, Beethoven), but this reading is in a league of its own: the only comparable recording is the famous Krasner/Webern, which was only the second performance of the work ever. (The work was written for Krasner...see post script.)
Mutter and Levine are both on a very, very high level here, and the consistency is astonishing as well. Levine never holds back--the fortissimo climaxes in the second movement that represent the physical agony of 18-year-old Manon Gropius are truly hair-raising. (Some conductors perform this with more head than heart, but this is very emotional music and the emotional content should not be downplayed.) As someone else pointed out, Mutter give less vibrato than most in the Corinthian folksong, but the result is haunting, and here she was not abusing this technique, as I feel she now often does. Mutter was far more emotional and connected more with her audience, to my ears, in 1992 than she does today. I would not be interested in hearing what she does with this work now, sad to say, because I think she would turn it more into a vehicle for her technique than an exploration of the work.
But in 1992 Mutter was not yet "Anne Sophie Mutter," and instead she uses her magnificent control over the colors of her violin to imply the evolution of Manon's life, consciousness and illness. Although the grief is already present when we begin, there are also many light and airy moments in the first movement that make the grief feel more like freshadowing. In the second movement the illness is already fully present, and we hear what can only be the wracking pain of the illness. Her violin thus sounds, if not weak, at least subdued and drained when the Bach Chorale enters. But the most astonishing effect is saved for last: as the final bars play, the Corinthian theme is heard again, seemingly as Manon's last statement, and Mutter somehow gives her tone here an eerie "disembodied" quality, as though Manon is departing from this earth. It's not the colorless vibratoless approach that she overuses nowadays, but something very special. I must go back and check my Krasner recording to see if he did it. Then Levine brings the orchestra in for the fattest, warmest chords of all as we feel Manon has ended her suffering.
I am aware that we now know this masterpiece has multiple interpretations, and Berg apparently had more than one woman in mind when he wrote the work (the concerto is filled with various numerical mysticisms), but at the same time, we don't know who those other women were or what the rest of the "program" was, so I have a feeling Mutter and Levine took the Gropius story as their reference point, as one has to pick something as a focus. Agreed the trombones can't do that glissando from Bb to Eb in the second movement properly, but I am so wrapped up in the music that I just don't care!
Through all this there is an effortless quality that I have never heard in any other recording of this concerto, save possibly the Krasner. (It's hard to tell--the sound is very poor in spots.) Not a gesture is wasted; there is no loss of momentum, not even for a second. Mutter and Levine know exactly where they are going, and the result is one of the greatest orchestral recordings in the catalog, both a sonic tour-de-force and a tender elegy, a modernist work and a deeply Romantic piece filled with the echoes of 19th century Europe. The breadth they achieve is surpassed only by how they manage to unify it all. The Berg is so overwhelming a work that each time I put it on, I am in no mood to play the Rihm that comes after it, as it would have to be anticlimactic, and so I have to confess I have never listened it. Someday I must evaluate that work separately.
(Post script: I've recently found out that Louis Krasner, a couple of years ago in the New York Times, praised this recording as one of the very best. So if you don't believe me, take *his* word for it!)