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Tortelier’s “Showmanship” Became Conductorial Restraint in Collaboration with Bell


It’s hard to imagine Debussy and Brahms on the same orchestral program. Writing as “Monsieur Croche” after a performance by Leopold Auer, Debussy said of the Violin Concerto and the Tchaikovsky Sérénade mélancolique for violin: “These two works competed with each other in boredom.” I wouldn’t even try to imagine what Brahms would have thought of Debussy. The Brahms was on the menu last night, played with forthright vigor and splash, and also fine sensitivity, by Joshua Bell. But Debussy got in the first word, with the first orchestral masterpiece of his maturity, the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune of 1894, a nine-minute piece that he worked on for most of a year and that Ravel later described as “a perfect composition.”

Faune is based on, that is, inspired by, the most famous — and most famously obscure and difficult — of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems, a so-called “Églogue,” written in 1876. Debussy’s stated intention was to give “a general impression” of the poem without being tied to specifically literal (or literary) details. The faun, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, tries repeatedly to recover the dream-memory of his beatific afternoon with “these nymphs — I want to perpetuate them.”     The emblem of memory is a strangely-shaped melody in the solo flute, subtly varied in shape and in harmonization at every recurrence (bars 10, 21, 26, 31, 79, 86, 94, and 100, if you have your score handy), and gradually developed over the first half of the piece, always discreetly emphasizing the C sharp that is its initial note. Then the flute disappears entirely as a new theme in D-flat major (bar 55), slightly redolent of the “Liebesnacht” scene in Wagner’s Tristan (though Debussy would have denied it), builds to a fortissimo climax. The D flat, of course, is also that elusive C sharp, and it alternates in the bass with G — the other framing note of the initial flute melody. As the D-flat episode subsides the initial flute melody returns, but now beginning on E; and the vanished C sharp appears in the bass. Another repetition of the melody follows, beginning on the distantly-related E flat — and no longer in the flute but in the oboe. No wonder the faun has trouble recapturing that memory! The final complete statement of the flute melody features the C sharp as keynote of a seventh-chord, the most stable supporting harmony the C sharp has enjoyed with this melody in the entire piece — but in the unstable position with G sharp in the bass. At the very end, the flute’s C sharp simply dissolves into an E major chord.

The conductor was Yan Pascal Tortelier, making his debut appearance with the winter Boston Symphony as a last-minute substitute for Sir Andrew Davis. He is one of those “showmanship” conductors whose gestural time-beating I find extremely distracting. He does not use a baton, but offers expressive details with shaping of the hands, and freely shifts the beat from one hand to the other and sometimes both. Sometimes this works well; other times, not so well. In the Debussy Faune it is often necessary to conduct each eighth-note beat in the constant changes between 12/8, 9/8, 2/4 and 3/4, especially at the end where triplets and duplets occur at the same time, but in this delicate music conductorial restraint is called for, not sweeping arcs, fast chopping, or pushing the tempo, where so often every beat looks like a downbeat. I sensed trouble ahead from the first bar, where Tortelier insisted on wide-angled time-beating during the entire unaccompanied flute solo that ought not to be conducted at all, or with no more than one or at most two beats in all of four bars before the winds and harp enter. Elizabeth Rowe, first flute, played the melody beautifully, but the conductor ought to have shown confidence. Fortunately the orchestra knows this famous piece so well that the performance succeeded admirably — and who knows but the conductor’s antics on the podium may even have helped. I noticed a subtly beautiful touch that might have been added by Tortelier, or might be BSO tradition from the Munch days: at bar 107, the last ghostly echo of the main melody, this time not in the flute but in two muted horns and muted violins, the violin part was played not by the first violins, as in the score, but by seconds, seated further to the rear of the stage, as though hidden.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1945) was scheduled for the original program, but another Stravinsky work from that year was substituted: the second amplified version of the Firebird ballet suite, using the reduced orchestration of the first version (1919) that was extracted from the original 1910 ballet, whose orchestration was, the composer said later, “wastefully large.” Except that the smaller orchestra makes the piece more practical, I don’t know why the complete ballet, 45 minutes long, couldn’t be performed instead as a concert piece, because the 1945 version already amounts to more than two-thirds of the original score, lengthening the 1919 suite to include the 9/8 Pas de deux, the Dance of the Princesses with the Golden Apples, and a few interludes. (Omitted are the Daybreak scene, the Magic Carillon, the Dance of Prince Ivan and Kashchei, and Kashchei’s Awakening and Death; these are some of the most brilliant parts of the ballet score.) I had never heard the 1945 version live before, and indeed the program note said that the Boston Symphony’s only other performances were in 1946 under the composer’s direction. We heard several impressively wrong notes, and I am sure these resulted from printer’s errors in the score and parts; a number of Stravinsky’s most important scores have suffered over the years from poor proofreading and editing, especially The Rite of Spring and Les noces, both scores significantly corrected in recent years; but blowing the dust off these orchestra parts last read in 1946 doubtless entailed some perils.

The orchestra sounded uniformly massive and brilliant, with a number of solos faultlessly delivered, despite Tortelier’s increasingly theatrical capers on the podium. For the downbeat of Kashchei’s Infernal Dance, I could swear that Tortelier leaped six inches in the air with both feet.  Certainly his enthusiasm galvanized the players, who gave him everything he asked for, and the audience stood up and cheered at the end.

At this point I will make a recommendation for recordings: the complete Firebird ballet, in a surpassingly brilliant performance conducted by Antal Dorati, is available on a Mercury budget CD (432 012-2). This was from a 1959 Living Presence monaural recording produced by the legendary Wilma Cozart, who died this past summer. (Also on this chock-full CD are Stravinsky’s Fireworks [1909]; Scherzo à la russe [1944]; The Song of the Nightingale [1917], extracted from Acts II and III of the 1914 opera The Nightingale; and the Tango of 1940, orchestrated in 1953 for the wonderfully sleazy combination of 5 clarinets, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, guitar, and six solo strings.) If you can’t find this CD, try Robert Craft’s complete Firebird and revised (1947) Petrushka, on Naxos 8.557500.

In the outstanding performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto that followed the intermission, I forgave Yan Pascal Tortelier for everything that had preceded. Gone were the leaping, dancing, and hacking the air to pieces. In accompanying Joshua Bell’s energetic performance Tortelier remained calm on the podium, with expansive gestures only in the fortissimo passages, and controlling the orchestral dynamics with close attention and a fine hand. The result was a balance between soloist and conductor that highlighted the purely symphonic ambience of this mostly un-virtuosic and espressivo cantabile concerto. Joshua Bell seemed genuinely to enjoy the collaboration. The audience, on its feet once again, was certainly delighted.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A wonderful review from Mark, as always. I especially cherish his second paragraph. Thanks so much for this fascinating visit inside “the workings” of a masterwork!

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — November 29, 2009 at 8:26 pm

  2. Wouldn’t we expect that any wrong notes in the printed parts of 1946 Firebird would have been corrected at the composer’s direction during his 1946 rehearsals of the piece? Were the players in fact reading from (and blowing dust off) the parts used then?

    Comment by Bill — November 30, 2009 at 2:36 pm

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