The New England Conservatory Philharmonia under Hugh Wolff closed out its season on April 18 in a well-filled Jordan Hall. The program opened with an interesting rarity, Ravel’s 1906 orchestration of his 1905 piano piece Une barque sur l’océan. Barque was one of two movements from his suite Miroirs that he orchestrated, but the other, the more famous and mysteriously titled Alborada del gracioso, he didn’t get around to scoring until 1918. Barque is a tour de force of orchestration, as almost all Ravel’s orchestral scores are, but some of its effects seem like reactions to Debussy’s La mer, which premiered in late 1905. The lapping waves, the winds, the rocking boat, the ocean swells, are all realized in the orchestration with masterful colorific and dynamic strokes that, as Wolff pointed out in his program note, belie the quintessential pianism of the original. The very large orchestra performed with wonderful delicacy, precision and subtlety; Wolff evoked virtuoso displays of dynamic range from the ensemble.
Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto in A minor, op. 22, is probably the least-performed of his three concertos, though it is a splendid work that should be in the repertoire of every serious cello soloist. As is often the case with Barber, it fuses intense emotional content with rigorous and learnèd formal processes. It was written in 1946 for the BSO and cellist Raya Garbousova (mother of NEC’s Paul Biss and grandmother of pianist Jonathan Biss), who owned the piece for so long that it may have discouraged others from horning in — the way John Browning owned the piano concerto. Christine Lamprea, a Juilliard graduate now in the NEC master’s program under Natasha Brofsky, did the only sensible thing under such circumstances — she adopted her own unique take on the piece, with a sureness and aplomb that were totally persuasive. The cello’s entrance in the first movement is one of those over-the-top, upper-register, wound-up outbursts that puts us in mind of Judith Weir’s wry observation that Romantic composers can treat the cello as a hysterical treble instrument with a surprise bass extension. Without stinting on these moments, Lamprea alloyed them with a delightful bounciness in the outer movements and lyrical restraint in the slow movement between, which features one of Barber’s gorgeous tunes with cannily irregular meters, like a Sicilienne in Bulgarian rhythm. The concerto presents major technical hurdles, which she overcame with supreme panache and charmingly effortless phrasing.
Wolff adopted tempi that, to our ears, were exactly right, including a somewhat faster than normal reading of the second theme of the finale, which loses none of its insistence for that. (Many conductors stress its keening quality.) The principal subject of this movement was also treated both lyrically and with an emphasis on its jazziness, not a quality one often associates with Barber. Amid the profuse ovations for soloist and conductor (more bouquets for Lamprea than she could hold, much less carry), there was a well-earned call-out for oboist Michelle Zwi.
The concert ended with a symphonic staple, Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 73, treated in something other than a conventional way. Wolff’s note clearly indicated that he was going to focus on the clouds that he saw hovering over this conventionally sunny work. Brahms did, indeed, write that there were “black wings” over the piece, but since sunny works do not loom large in the Brahms œuvre, we wondered if this intent on Wolff’s part to undermine the conventional wisdom was entirely, well, politic. In the event, the audience was treated to some deliciously burnished roundness in the brass playing, especially the horns, which was a nice way of darkening the sound. The slow movement’s toe-dipping in Wagnerian chromatics certainly provided ample opportunity for Wolff’s interpretive approach; and, quite apart from the polemic, the relaxed mood and splendidly modulated dynamics of the intermezzo movement were admirable. One should never underestimate the challenges posed by the insistent syncopations of Brahms’s writing (now, where did you say that downbeat was?), and the orchestra tossed them off with joyful insouciance.
In other respects, though, we thought the performance was not quite in keeping with the overall tenor of the work. Sometimes — sometimes — the conventional wisdom has it right. The dynamics ran too often and too long on the loud side, with some rather harsh, unblended sonorities in what might have been too large an ensemble for this piece. The finale, too, succumbed to what constitutional lawyers call viewpoint discrimination: the opening melody, which we have always seen as a delightful tribute to the spirit of Haydn, was conveyed with uncomfortable stridency. The ending, fast and loud, was as always, enough to bring the audience to its feet, but color us unpersuaded.