In Claude Debussy’s Symphonic Fragments from his incidental music to Gabriele d’Annunzio’s mystery play The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Charles Dutoit attained profound depths everywhere. On Thursday evening Debussy’s orchestral abbreviation unfolded in spectral machinations, moments of sheer purity and sheen, and wonder-filled waves rolling in and out of the illusory. BSO soloists elevated Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra through a display of elegance over the composer’s oftentimes taut, uneasy surfaces. This pairing played off surprisingly well back-to-back with the psychological exteriors of the Martin contrasting the spiritual interiors of Debussy. Believing something similar would happen with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto that followed intermission, it was at first puzzling to me why my earlier rapture was mostly unsustainable here, despite a sensational technique from the young Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky.
I cannot imagine a finer, more involving performance than that which the BSO delivered in every detail all through The Martyrdom’s four movements. Dutoit’s awesome embrace of every breeze, every gust, and every puff of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic fragment grasped hold of my attention, never for one instant letting go. For once, the opening wind ensembles sounded like one divinely tuned organ. Immaculate solos on English horn from Robert Sheena and trumpet from Thomas Rolfs further plunged us into the extraordinarily brushed colors of Debussy’s mystical score. Dutoit and BSO discovered the clearest of ways toward developing the different climaxes of each of the movements and when arriving at them, made them feel inevitable yet entirely fresh. I hate even mentioning the one French horn bobble that noticeably detracted from the major climax in the final movement, The Good Shepherd.
The principals of the BSO all shared stardom in the Martin piece, where the crescendo became a bit too obvious as the building device to this peak or that, this, despite Dutoit’s best attempts at mediating them. Chromaticism, upon which Martin heavily relies, also became obvious despite the sometimes frisky more oftentimes intense playing from the soloists who worked as beautifully alone as together. Rowe, Ferrillo, Hudkins, Svoboda, Sommerville, Rolfs, Oft, and Genis must be among the best orchestral musicians in the world.
We learned from the concert booklet containing a reproduction of the “Fourth Program of the Forty-third Season, 1920,” that Rachmaninoff performed what he has said to be his favorite concerto, the Third; that performance, by the way, was preceded by a Haydn Symphony and followed by a suite from The Fire-Bird by Stravinsky. That programming seemed somewhat odd. We also learned that “There will be an intermission of ten minutes after the concerto.”
Thursday night, I clocked the 2012 intermission at 25 minutes. Why so long? Was it this long intermission following the Debussy and Martin that made it difficult to refocus on the Rachmaninoff? I believe more that it was the programming of the Debussy and Martin and still more that I had succumbed to the Debussy, really leaving me little else with which to reckon.
While it was completely evident from start to finish that Lugansky can play faster than I can think or hear, he could also in turn be deeply touching. I would have preferred more swooning, less objectifying, though. Many pianists have proven there is art to velocity that translates to expression or communication.
Sitting in orchestra row S seat five, I found the balance between piano orchestra not quite right, too much volume from Dutoit making it appear to me that Lugansky just had to play louder. Unlike the first and second concertos of Rachmaninoff, the third flirts with musical materials rather than settling in, the third and last movement being the exception. This concerto is more complex overall. Yes, there was gorgeous piano sound and there were moments approaching the lyrical and dramatic. Again, thinking of the first half of the concert with its gorgeousness of sound, Rachmaninoff’s orchestration just did not seem to come at the right place at the right time, neither were the superb balances before intermission present after the long break.
Ultimately this performance surprised me after having prepared for this review by listening to the Russian playing the same concerto with Roberto Abbado and the RAI National Symphony Orchestra on YouTube. There he showed much sensitivity and musicality— a very different Lugansky. Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, Lugansky’s thoughtful choice of an encore last night, found a most appealing beauty and savagery to end the evening.