In his introductory notes to this massive 32-CD set, Met general manager Peter Gelb wrote, without hyperbole, "No conductor has played a more vital role in the history of the Metropolitan Opera than our music director, James Levine." The set, James Levine Celebrating 40 Years at the Met, is a remarkably fine tribute that includes 11 productions (two of them triple-bills of small works) recorded between 1978 and 2003. It's an immensely appealing collection of performances.
This is not a representative sample of the core repertoire -- only three of the eleven are not 20th century works -- but it includes some of the conductor's greatest musical triumphs, and these are almost all works Levine had not commercially recorded. There's not an Italian opera in the bunch, and there are two each by Berlioz, Berg, and Stravinsky. An added benefit is that many of the singers are performing roles they never recorded commercially. The set's treasures are too many to enumerate in a brief review but some of the most tantalizing are the legendary Les Troyens from 2003, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Deborah Voigt, and Ben Heppner; a 1980 performance of Wozzeck with José van Dam and Anja Silja; Parade, a trio of short works by Satie, Poulenc, and Ravel from 2002; Moses und Aron in a 1999 performance with John Tomlinson and Philip Langridge; and the only recording of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby (written in honor of the conductor's 25th anniversary with the company) with a dazzling cast of American singers, from 2000. The Met Orchestra, one of the world's finest orchestras in or out of the opera house, pours its heart out for Levine, delivering exceptional performances throughout.
The set includes a brief essay and a synopsis of each opera, plus an interview with Levine about each work. The sound quality and balance are variable but mostly good for live recordings, apart from some ancillary noises.