After writing about Ravel’s operas here last week, I was delighted to find the Mother Goose Suite on the BSO program last night. Ma mère l’Oye, five children’s pieces, were written for piano four hands in 1908, and some of Ravel’s very greatest works come from that same very productive year — Rapsodie espagnole, Gaspard de la nuit, and much of the opera l’heure espagnole as well. Ravel had finished the orchestration of the piano-duet original by 1910; this is what we heard last night. One normally thinks of Ravel as a large-scale orchestrator, but Ma mère l’Oye is a fine exception. It has a very full sound, with plenty of impressionist divided strings and a full complement of woodwinds; but the entire brass section consists of just two horns. (In 1911 he was persuaded to rearrange the order of the pieces in a ballet, adding two more pieces and some interludes; by that time, he had heard Stravinsky’s Firebird, premiered in Paris in 1910, and been dazzled by its orchestral color. The ballet Ma mère l’Oye is almost never heard on concert programs, although it would be perfectly suitable; the reason is that the orchestral scores remained unpublished for decades.)
I knew nothing about Stéphane Denève but his credentials are obviously excellent. His baton style is graceful, though a little hard to follow from the audience. He certainly won my heart with the Ravel, in which he added some fine subtleties of tempo that were quite convincing, and in the opening piece, which translates as “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty,” with its ultra-thin texture in only 20 measures, he brought the full divided strings in at the end, pianissimo, with a haunting delicacy I wouldn’t have thought possible. We heard some fine solo work in “Hop o’ my thumb” with Robert Sheena’s English horn and Malcolm Lowe’s solo violin squeaks (the birds eating up all the crumbs on the forest trail). “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas,” the third piece, is a black-key pentatonic piece similar to Debussy’s Pagodes for piano. “Beauty and the Beast,” which follows, is marked as a waltz, but has been called “the fourth Gymnopédie” after Satie’s three slow dances in similar rhythm. The final movement, “The Fairy Garden,” is an apotheosis for the suite, in a stately, hymn-like C major that builds to a full fortissimo. In all the 20th century there is no lovelier music than this short suite.
Peter Serkin expertly played the solo in Stravinsky’s seldom-heard Concerto for piano and winds, composed in 1924 with a few revisions in 1950. This work, composed when Stravinsky was finding his way in full-blown neoclassicism and also discovering American jazz, is the antithesis of a big romantic concerto. It begins with a stately chorale chiefly in the four horns, rather like a funeral march in pungently dissonant A minor (returning again just before the end of the third movement); this serves as a prelude to the entrance of the piano with the full ensemble, Allegro, percussive, brittle and even harsh. But the piano really moves between chords that peck at the total sound and Bach-like melodic lines in clear counterpoint, and at the climax of the movement, note-values are cut in half but the tempo speeds up anyway. The first movement concludes with an abbreviated repeat of the opening chorale, with the piano included — but one can hardly hear it over the winds. The meter changes are quite complex, but Stéphane Denève had no trouble with them at all.
The Largo in C major is a cantilena slow movement, such as in Bach’s keyboard concertos; indeed, the spirit of Bach seemed to have been a significant inspiration. There are two big cadenzas for the soloist that have always seemed oddly placed to me. The rest of the movement, as well as the finale that follows attacca, continues the neo-Baroque sound without diminishing either the percussive articulation or the bittersweet harmony. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Stravinsky had learned something from Prokofiev, the better pianist, in this work; later, Poulenc, younger than either, would learn from both in his piano style.
I couldn’t stay for the second half and thus didn’t hear the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. Shostakovich is one of the most uneven composers of the 20th century, but at his infrequent best he shares top rank among his contemporaries, and the 20-minute-long first movement of this famous work, with its Mahler-like development and irresistible drive, is surely an example of how good he can get. I suppose everybody knows now that this was the symphony — widely known as “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Justified Criticisms” — that redeemed Shostakovich and saved him from being thrown into the gulag. I wanted to hear some of the particularly memorable moments — the canon (at the fifth) between flute and horn, the solo violin, trumpet, and celesta near the end of the first movement. I’ll try to listen on the radio on Saturday.