Boston gave an enthusiastic welcome to the young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin at this week’s concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His program was well chosen for orchestral brilliance, and the Boston Symphony supported him fully. The works were not the usual warhorses, but the less-often-heard warhorses of the crowd-pleasing type, and it was good to hear them played with such apparent gusto. (I attended the February 27 performance on Saturday evening.)
Nézet-Séguin is obviously a conductor with style as well as sensitivity. He uses his large beat well for registering – holding the baton above head level to indicate higher reaches of the melody, and alternatively, to highlight the winds in the back of the stage. With all of this, the orchestra had no trouble following him. Yet I did not enjoy watching his platform manner, with all its wide-armed gestures, crouching and knee-bending, darting rapidly from side to side with all the histrionic gyrations of Leonard Bernstein. But doubtless I shouldn’t complain, because the result in sound was excellent throughout.
Ravel was a master orchestrator, as all the world knows. Stravinsky, perhaps not entirely kindly, called him “the Swiss watchmaker” because of the delicacy of detail that abounds in Ravel’s orchestral scores. Yet even Ravel, as great a composer as he was an orchestrator, could miscalculate orchestrally from time to time. I often wonder whether he really did want to orchestrate his Valses nobles et sentimentales, which are one of the great piano works of the last century (98 years old this year) and one of the most sensitively written.
My teacher, Walter Piston, regularly used to assign analysis topics from these waltzes, and I can even remember when I asked a question about the notation of one of them (look at mm. 26 and 29 in waltz no. 4), and Piston said that the notes marked D## should in fact be C##. This can be confirmed by looking at the orchestral score of 1913. Yet the orchestral score, though it gave Ravel an opportunity to correct the piano score, also contains at least one howler: what is marked as Assez animé with 80 to the dotted half in the piano score surely is not supposed to be 80 to the quarter, as the orchestra score reads. The biggest problem with the orchestrated Valses nobles et sentimentales, however, is that the entire orchestral conception is too large. Even for the noisy waltz no. 1 and the big climaxes in no. 7, Ravel could have been more successful with a smaller group – compare, for instance, the ensemble of Ma Mère l’Oye, whose entire brass complement consists of two horns. In the Epilogue that concludes the Valses, where short glimpses return from each of the preceding seven waltzes, the muted brass and percussion are simply too intrusive and out of timbral sync with the quiet pedal-point ambience. (I felt that last night’s tempo in this waltz was much too slow – far slower, indeed, than the indicated 76 to the quarter.)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin coaxed a smooth and expressive sound from the orchestra in these delicate pieces, but he was unable to subdue the overall harshness of sound in waltz no. 1, and I blame the composer for this. It’s true that Ravel deliberately spiced up the harmony in this piece, but I believe that he guessed wrong orchestrally, and the result was a harmony that simply became crushing, which is too bad, because the pattern of chromatic sequences in this piece is wonderful in the piano version. The grandiose moments in no. 7 were more successful; the harmony is more transparent despite the massive sound; but had I been Ravel I would have left out all the percussion at this moment.
Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major is frankly a crowd-pleaser, not as well known as no. 1 in E flat major but just as spectacular. It’s easy to imagine that Liszt worked on both concerti off and on at the same time; both are single multi-sectional movements, like Mendelssohn’s concerti but much more concise. This concerto, which Liszt revised several times before finally producing it, seems a more episodic, fragmented piece, with themes that are less obtrusive and more hidden underneath the pianistic fireworks; yet it moves forward effectively, with strong development within the different sections, and the cadenzas don’t impede the drama. The biggest formal climax is the return of the main theme – originally in 3/4 – in common time, marked Marziale (there is a comparable section in the E-flat Concerto), and it comes within a hairbreadth of sounding silly; this might be Liszt’s gesture of Hungarian nationalist defiance. It yields to a quiet passage that prepares the final peroration (Tchaikovsky seems to have studied this when writing his own Concerto no. 1 – which, let us remember, had its premiere performance in Boston in 1875).
Jean-Yves Thibaudet was a scintillating performer in this concerto that showcased his skill so effectively. His upper-register jeu perlé was especially fine, and there is a lot of it in this work; his double octaves were fearless. He is also exhibits fearless showmanship, especially when looking back over his left shoulder at the solo cellist, Martha Babcock. (Parenthetical remark: Liszt deserves recognition for his use of solo strings within the orchestra – there was also a nice dialogue for piano with two solo violins. And what he did with solo viola and four solo violins in the “Gretchen” movement of the Faust Symphony is particularly remarkable.)
A word in behalf of Liszt’s Totentanz for piano and orchestra, which is an amazing set of variations on the Dies irae, composed, like the two concerti, in the wake of the Revolution of 1848. This brilliant piece deserves to be heard more often. All of Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra, including the beloved Hungarian Fantasia, the Fantasy on Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens, the early and rather strange Malédiction (Curse), and the superb arrangement of Schubert’s Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy op. 15, are available in outstanding performances on four CDs under the Brilliant Classics label, no. 99936. Nelson Freire plays the concerti and the Totentanz; the other works are played by Stephen Mayer, Jenö Jandö, and Alfred Brendel.
Of Dvorák’s nine symphonies, only the last four are regularly performed, and the Sixth, in D major, is the least often heard of these. It says something that the Boston Symphony performed it in 1883, the year of its world premiere, and again in 1886 and 1890, and then not again until 1963. I have remarked elsewhere in these pages that Dvorák’s earlier symphonies are long-winded, moving gradually toward conciseness of form that culminates in the Eighth and Ninth (“New World”) symphonies. The Sixth is in-between in length, and Dvorák typically takes his time coming to the end of a movement. Although writers point to Wagner’s influence on Dvorák’s earlier works, it is his friend Brahms to whom Dvorák seems to have paid greater tribute in this work. The beginning of the finale of Brahms’s Second Symphony, for example, seems closely reflected in Dvorák’s finale. Most of all, though, the Sixth has a stronger and more spacious lyricism than any of the later symphonies. The melodies are long and comfortable, especially in the first two movements; the harmony is rich and radiantly diatonic, and there is an abundant exchange of major and minor that adds fine coloration. Even the wild Presto Furiant in D minor that constitutes the Sixth’s scherzo movement is more of a dance than an argument.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin clearly had a fine understanding of this big but never grandiose symphony and of the way it should move. Sometimes his gestures drew too big a response from the brass, but this is small carping. The orchestra played beautifully for him, and the performance was well shaped. I hope that Symphony Hall will hear more of him in the future.