Conductor Stéphane Denève made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut on Thursday, April 14, in an uncorked display of French esprit. Two vintage oeuvres, one of Roussel and another of Ravel nothing less than intoxicated Symphony Hall after intermission. American pianist Jonathan Biss returned for a second time in five years to perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto on the first half of the program. Reactions? Perhaps playwright Edward Albee may have put it best, “No two people see the same show.”
Whatever the concert follower’s taste, remarkable it is to learn that Albert Roussel created Symphony No. 3 in G minor, Opus 42 — considered by many to be among the best of his works — at the request of our own BSO for the celebration its fiftieth anniversary (that being the 1930-31 season under the direction of the incomparable Serge Koussevitzky). The Frenchman’s score savors a full orchestral plate. In point of fact, Denève only took his own serious bows as he called upon the various sections to stand with him after an outrageously thrilling performance. The orchestra’s handsome and instructive concert program informs us that Roussel’s work met with approval from the Boston audience at its premiere eighty years ago. My impression of Thursday night’s reception was that it did once again.
Roussel’s brass scoring for four trumpets, three trombones, and tuba gloriously marched in on the last movement, Allegro con spirito, doing so with glances at the grandly heroic in a kind of déjà vu of the fantastic March to the Guillotine by his compatriot Berlioz. Just before the final notes, the BSO brass bountifully blared out Roussel’s “crazy,” possibly tongue-in-cheek, harmony. That had more than a little to do with bringing big smiles, even gleeful exclamations from around the hall. I cannot resist adding my own: this performance was a blast!
And more. Malcolm Lowe’s violin inched its way up the fingerboard in the Adagio, ultimately reaching the highest and purist of sound in a single tone that was as serenely a moving moment as I have ever encountered. Roussel’s work also invited the BSO winds to exhibit adeptness in all kinds of nifty orchestral situations, and they did so thrillingly. Roussels’s liveliness, some of it coming at very, very high speeds, conjures Paris bustle back then in the earlier twentieth century and hints at Erik Satie’s eccentric take on a still earlier time of childlike naiveté.
The BSO percussion section drove the Roussel farther still into the composer’s distinctively cultivated physicality — no wonder the unrestrained reaction from the audience! This is a keeper. More well earned bows for Denève, all of the BSO, and the 1930 commission.
Maurice Ravel’s popular La Valse became another creature in Maestro Denève’s hands. Not at all picturesquely impressionistic, or vaporously and sensually suggestive, or bacchanalian orgiastic, it was another kind of spell that Denève cast over Ravel’s French-Viennese dance. Was it what former BSO annotator Steven Ledbetter offers in the program notes? “The piece grows in a long crescendo, interrupted and stated again, finally carried to an energetic and irresistible climax whose violence hints at far more than a social dance.”
Thinking of Albee once again, who knows? As the waltz continued, I became more interested in watching Denève’s seemingly double-jointed moves at the podium. He asked for an unmistakable edginess and the orchestra responded. Somehow, though, that did not come across as natural. A somewhat freakish spell, though, did. I admire his and the BSO’s invocation of yet another slant on the Ravel. My only reservation, really, is that this extremely dynamic interpretation competed with the Roussel. I had expected contrast.
I was disappointed with the performance of Beethoven’s eternal cadenza, his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat, Opus 73, “Emperor.” So it seemed to me as Jonathan Biss all too uncommonly smoothed out the concerto’s extensive scale work, polished off its many trills, and refined its frequent arpeggios, all this done with enviable velocity and prowess. Surprisingly there was not enough power from the piano. This was especially noticeable in the last movement, so wanting finally to burst out in triumphant unabated melody.
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