The ingeniously planned and magnificently played three-program Ravel-a-thon featuring the charismatic pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet arrived at its impressive finale on Sunday afternoon, July 24, with the Boston Symphony in the Shed at Tanglewood. The all-Ravel program, originally scheduled as a Levine event, was conducted by Emmanuel Krivine; the scheduled Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was jettisoned in favor of the enchanting Mother Goose Suite.
It was certainly an easy listening program, and concluded with Ravel’s regrettably most popular piece, Bolero. The weather was perfect, and this was a perfect summer concert. The two Ravel concerti are well enough known — as is the fabulous pianist — to have drawn a much larger crowd.
Those who did get to hear this program enjoyed a sumptuous treat from the orchestra and two memorably brilliant performances by Thibaudet, who seemed thoroughly happy to be playing yet more Ravel, an early calling card of his. Mother Goose Suite — Ma Mère l’Oye — has turned up in a variety of incarnations, first as a set of four-hand piano suite written between 1908-1910, then expanded and orchestrated by Ravel in 1911 as a ballet. I’ve heard it in a two-harp arrangement, and for years my trio to played it as a harp-flute-viola with gong trio. No matter what you do with it — the pieces could probably survive a brass band arrangement — Ravel cast his special magic, especially as an orchestrator. A small orchestra opened the five-movement suite with the short “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty,” and the harp (Jessica Zhou) — which had an enormous role throughout the concert — thrilled with one gorgeous harmonic after the next. If the music hadn’t caused an enchantment to fall upon the audience, the harp alone would have done so. In “Tom Thumb” the oboe at the beginning and end were quite lovely, followed by the enchanting “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas “(with the great gong moment). The harp and violin (Tamara Smirnova) continued their beautiful playing throughout the next two magical movements, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Fairy Garden.” As far as the conducting went, my companion felt things were often too fast; I felt tempi were sluggish. In fact, the BSO has performed this piece so many times they could do it without a conductor.
Thibaudet learned all of Ravel, including the Piano Concerto in G by the time he was fifteen. His two-CD set of Ravel’s solo piano music (that he just performed last week) is sublime. I also have heard his G major Concerto many times on CD, but there is something about a great — really great — live performance that makes driving nearly 300 miles to hear it seem almost sane. For those used to Thibaudet’s colorful stage wear, there was a bit of a surprise, an informal (linen?) take on black pants, jacket, and white shirt. It was by his steady designer, Vivienne Westwood. He strode on the stage, smiling, and launched into the best Ravel G Major Concerto I’ve heard in my life — full of color, rhythmic concision, alternating between moments of preternatural calm and dreaminess and frighteningly fast fingerwork. The man has chops to burn, but it was the dreamy moments in the second movement that will stay in my memory the longest.
Ravel’s solo accompaniment includes a important harp cadenza (a popular audition piece) with glissandos going up and down the instrument accompanied by harmonics played in the left hand, played with great beauty, again, by Zhou; a whip, and brass in the third movement like distant cavalry. It’s an altogether fun piece, one that Steven Ledbetter points out in his program notes, was a divertissement de luxe, Ravel’s own favorite term of praise. Conductor and pianist seemed of one mind, as they were in the still-incredible-after-many-hearings Piano Concerto in D for the left hand .The two piano concertos, the G major and the left hand concerto, were written virtually simultaneously in 1930 after a hiatus of writing for piano for twelve years. The left hand concerto was championed most recently, especially at Tanglewood by Leon Fleisher, who gave it a darker, perhaps musically profound reading, but I found Thibaudet’s performance full of exuberance, of rhythmic and melodic expressiveness, to be the more enjoyable. The trombones and tuba were having a ball — they were among the highlights of the afternoon. Regrettably, our seats were on the “wrong” side of the piano, and ninety percent of the fun of this piece is watching a left hand scamper and soar all over the keyboard, doing what is seemingly impossible — playing the melody with the thumb and perhaps next finger, using the other fingers to do an orchestra’s worth of work. It’s like going to the zoo and hearing the sounds without seeing the animals. I’ve “seen” this piece done many times, but yesterday there was no convincing me there was only one hand doing it ALL. A bouquet of bravi for Thibaudet.
Finally, the piece many were waiting for, but which I dreaded: “Bolero.” Krivine led the full orchestra in a performance so compelling I almost forgot I detested this piece. From a snare drum, which continued throughout the piece in an ostinato bolero rhythm, to a flute, clarinet, bassoon, harp harmonics which kept going, English horn, saxophone, trombone (all with pizzicato double basses), trombone with jazzy slides, strings one section at a time being added, another drum, then brass… Ravel was very specific about what he believed this “Bolero” was : a seventeen-minute piece “consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music — of one very gradual crescendo.” Krivine paced the dynamics and deftly balanced the tone colors of various paired instruments; his beat was both efficient and communicative. I still don’t like the piece, but I marvel at the beautifully paced and dynamically exciting performance he elicited from the orchestra. His beat was both efficient and communicative. I’d be interested to hear Krivine with the BSO again. I think he’s got potential.