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Berlioz and Mussorgsky Compete with Deluge as BSO Plays on at Tanglewood


James Levine conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood on Friday evening, July 24,  in the Koussevitzky Music Shed in a rewarding program of music by Hector Berlioz and Modeste Mussorgsky. First on the program was the which Berlioz composed in 1844 using material from his unsuccessful opera Benvenuto Cellini. After the opening outburst, we were treated to one of Berlioz’s beautifully flexible Andante melodies: the love song from the opera is transformed first into a English horn solo ably played by the BSO’s Robert Sheena and then heard in canon for winds and strings with rustling wind and percussion accompaniment. Coming after this leisurely opening, the Allegro vivace was all the more exciting, as Levine and the magnificent BSO brasses brought the overture to a brilliant frenzy in a pulsing 6/8 at breakneck speed.

Berlioz composed Harold in Italy in the summer of  1834 at the request of the violin virtuoso Paganini, who wanted a piece to show off his Stradivarius viola. In the end, Paganini found his part too modest and never played the piece, yet in December 1838 he made Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs in appreciation. Harold in Italy is indeed more symphony than concerto, and more a reflection of Berlioz’s own wanderings during his Prix de Rome years than of Byron’s Childe Harold. Steven Ansell, the BSO’s principal violist, was the soloist. From the melancholic opening to the Brigands’ Orgy, the rapport between conductor, soloist, and orchestra was palpable, encompassing the recurrent melody in its various manifestations, the famous réunion des thèmes in the Serenade, and the rhythmic intensification of the finale.

By the end of the second movement, however, the musicians appeared to be gesticulating rather than playing, because their sound was all but drowned out by an increasingly ferocious rainstorm going on outside while the soaked lawn audience huddled under umbrellas. Fortunately technology came to the rescue of the music as microphones and speakers were connected for the remainder of the evening. (A similar storm in 1937 led to a major fundraising effort and the construction of the permanent shed; photos of the earlier deluge are on display at the Visitor Center in the Tappan House.)

As original for his time as Berlioz was in his, Mussorgsky died in 1881, leaving his historical opera Khovanshchina mostly completed, but in piano score. Based like Boris Godunov on an episode in Russian history, it concerns the rebellion of Prince Khovansky and the Old Believers against Peter the Great and his westernizing reforms. The opera was orchestrated (and the harmonies “cleaned up”) by Rimsky-Korsakov, but in 1958 Shostakovich produced a version more faithful to the original. The prelude, composed already in 1874, gives little hint, in its gently lyrical, folk-like melodic language, of the violent plot of the opera and reminds us that some of Mussorgsky’s most expressive music is found among his song settings.

Lyrical, dramatic, and satirical elements alternate in the Pictures at an Exhibition, the final work on the program. Mussorgsky’s series of piano character pieces, which imaginatively recreates a posthumous exhibition of works by his friend Victor Hartmann, was little known until Maurice Ravel produced his orchestral version in 1922. Serge Koussevitzky commissioned the orchestration, retaining sole conducting rights for several years, and made the first recording of it with the BSO in 1930. Although Ravel omitted the Promenade between Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle and Limoges and took other liberties with the score, his version has become a classic in its own right. Levine and the BSO did full justice to the inventiveness and brilliance of Ravel’s orchestration, particularly in “Il Vecchio Castello,” with its evocative alto saxophone solo, and the mercurial “Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells.”

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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