in: Reviews

November 30, 2012

Five Frenchmen and Scot at Symphony Hall


I was delighted to witness the return to Symphony Hall last night of the very able, sympathetic, and not notably histrionic Stéphane Denève, whose fine concert last February I attended only in part. From the left balcony I was able to get a clear view of his left hand, which gave cues, kept control of expression across the ensemble, and even kept quiet most of the time, despite occasional random-energy thrashing.

The BSO’s most recent Boston performance of the overture to Les Francs-Juges was in 1972, and before that, in 1918. (One would think it would have been played a lot under Charles Munch, but apparently not.) It was fascinating to hear this first orchestral composition (1828) of the 25-year-old Hector Berlioz, whose Symphonie fantastique, one of the most astounding leaps into the unknown that the history of music offers, was composed just two years later. From the standpoint of structure, this overture is fairly loose, but what really matters is the amazingly bold orchestration, obvious practically from the beginning, with its contrast of soft high strings with the ponderous chorale of heavy brass (4-3-3-2). Especially remarkable was the sound of two tubas, substituting for the ophicleides that Berlioz asked for (if you’ve ever heard an ophicleide, even a well-played one, you will not regret the substitution). From where I was seated I could only guess, but I think that what I saw was the conventional orchestral tuba in F with its narrower bore, and the B-flat contrabass tuba (normally a band instrument; Piston’s Orchestration speaks of it as “huge”). The tone was magnificent throughout. If not for this doom-threatening brass sound, the overture could be mistaken for one by Rossini or Auber.

Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the great movers behind the revival of concert music in France after the Empire, when a forward-looking Parisian population, ready to welcome the Third Republic after the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune, was also willing to accept the challenge to preeminence of traditional grand opera, ballet, and insipid church music. Among much symphonic and chamber music (he didn’t deny the Parisians their operas and ballets and church works either), Saint-Saëns wrote five piano concertos, but only the Second is widely performed (I reviewed it here three years ago). Saint-Saëns himself was a first-rate pianist who appeared all over Europe (and later in America, when he was 80) as a sought-after soloist. Last night we heard Jean-Yves Thibaudet play the rarely-heard Fifth Concerto, nicknamed the “Egyptian” (because of its slow movement in “Moorish” style so called by the critical press, but not by Saint-Saëns). This concerto is a relatively late work, written in 1895 when the composer was 60 years old (he lived to be 86), and it reveals him in the fullness of his mature technique, with an ingenious approach to form and some harmonic devices that were very progressive within his own essentially conservative style. The brisk pianism of the first movement is dominated by fast upward scales in parallel sixths and answering arpeggios, as light as air — this piano idiom is obviously virtuosic and full of energy, but its sound is as different from Liszt or Rachmaninoff as could be. What a pleasure to hear and see Jean-Yves Thibaudet play this gossamer music with perfectly curved fingers as though it were nothing at all, when every pianist who has tried to play it knows how difficult it really is.

The “oriental” quality of the second movement has been much discussed. Formally it is very free and diffuse, rather like a slide show of ethnic styles and melodies, representing what Saint-Saëns had visited in North Africa. There’s a spacious recitative-like D minor, a lullaby in G major that could have once served in Saint-Saëns’s own Rapsodie d’Auvergne, a repeated-note cadenza that resembles finger-picking (but on an oud, not a banjo or mandolin), and a weird pentatonic episode that looks forward to Ravel’s “Laideronette” in Ma Mère l’oye, which is of course Chinese. Then there’s the strange left-hand melody in normal-sized notes, doubled at the twelfth and seventeenth above in little notes, reinforcing these upper partials as though one had drawn the Nazard and Tierce stops on the organ. Not to mention the scale sometimes called the Jewish scale—D, E-flat, F-sharp, G, A, B-flat, C-sharp (think Hava nagila).

Thibaudet poured a lot of concentrated drama into the second movement, but he let loose completely in the finale. This movement is boisterous and bouncy, with thicker piano textures, triumphant but never grandiose. Some writers think that Saint-Saëns was influenced by early jazz, but I think this resemblance is coincidental and doesn’t even depend on ragtime (Joplin’s Maple Leaf dates from the same year). And in 1895 we would hardly find another composer writing a melodic chord succession in parallel sevenths. Three years later Saint-Saëns decided he wasn’t done with this finale; no. 6 of his Six Etudes, op. 111, is based on it (and dedicated to Raoul Pugno, who was the first to play the Fifth Concerto in the United States).

The “Three Interludes” from James MacMillan’s opera The Sacrifice bear a certain formal resemblance to Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. MacMillan’s first Interlude begins with a big crescendo with cascades of bells and other percussion, followed by what Denève called a “sad melody” with trombone and four muted horns. This harmony of this movement, with widely-spaced parallel triads alternated between a Wagnerian opulence and a polychordal sound that reminded me of William Schuman — but there were shades, too, of the ripe but cluttered chromatic harmony of Arnold Bax. In the second Interlude, one could discern different groups in the orchestra playing at different speeds, both separately and simultaneously, all the while regulated by a passacaglia theme (there’s a passacaglia in Peter Grimes, too) that was first heard in plucked contrabasses. Featured in the different groups were timpani in a high register, twirls and screeches in flute and piccolo, and a long melody in the violins in slow notes, all combining with great effectiveness. The final Interlude was stormy and scary, with upper melody in chopped-up phrases that always returned to the same note, a technique that Varèse liked. Denève had mentioned the influence not of Varèse, but of Stravinsky — I certainly heard the “Ritual Action of Ancestors” in MacMillan’s steady beat of bass drum and contrabassoon in 4/4, alternating with faster sections in 3/8. The crescendo ending was sudden, furious, and explosive, and the conductor’s gestures were well matched to it.

Denève took the microphone before conducting the MacMillan work to tell the audience about the music, which he had performed in the composer’s native Scotland. He spoke of the music’s “roughness and truculence,” comparing it to the Roussel work that concluded the program. Because MacMillan was not present, after the performance Denève picked up the score off the stand and held it up for the audience, shaking it as though offering his congratulating hand to the composer.

Albert Roussel is a composer like Bartók, one who doesn’t quite fit one’s sense of the historical line. His harmonic idiom, which is rich and bittersweet, seems influenced by Wagner (via d’Indy, who was his teacher) on the one hand and Ravel and Stravinsky on the other, but at the same time is mostly individualist. Roussel is no stranger to the BSO, which commissioned his Third Symphony, and the second suite from Bacchus et Ariane, from the ballet of 1930, was a favorite display piece during the Munch era. The classical Greek subject recalls the territory marked out eighteen years earlier in 1912 by Ravel in Daphnis et Chloé, and some of that work’s influence could be felt in the background of Roussel’s orchestral sound and orgiastic dances (Roussel’s final dance, like Ravel’s, featured a 5/4 meter). Stéphane Denève played this colorful piece for all it was worth. I felt, however, that he was too free with the different tempi — too much variety of tempo, in fact, in the fast sections. Both the speed and the dynamics of the final Bacchanale were so pushed that there was a loss of clarity, and at times I remembered the way Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin was chasing his prey around the room. We heard some very good playing, certainly —Tamara Smirnova’s solo violin, fine melodies in flute and clarinet, and in the Bacchanale where the entire horn section comes forth in an upward roar of triads. I don’t even mind mentioning a single note, John Ferrillo’s mournful, even bluesy oboe solo, F-natural, against the F-sharp of the D major strings at the beginning of the piece.

Stéphane Denève with Jean Yves Thibaudet (Stu-Rosner photo)

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,  harmony.


  1. This is a model review. Bravi MDV and BMInt.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — December 2, 2012 at 9:11 am

  2. Yes! The review not only articulates what we heard faithfully, it sheds light on so many subtle aspects of both the program and the performance, doubling the pleasure, as it were. I will study every word and look up every ref. So: thank you.

    Comment by Ashley — December 2, 2012 at 10:51 am

  3. We attended the Saturday night performance and enjoyed it immensely.
    We were shocked to see so many empty seats. Those who did attend seemed to agree with us that it was a fantastic performance by Deneve, the orchestra and the soloist J-Y Thibodeau. Thibodeau even rewarded us with a delightful little encore. Fantastic! I’ve seen Deneve lead the BSO three times now and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of them. He’s clearly been our favorite of the visiting conductors. Not least for the passion he puts into the performances. It seems to permeate through to the players. This was our 4th concert of the 2012-13 season. We’ve seen Tovey, Mena, Ades and now Deneve; and tonight was the first time we felt the orchestra was actually excited to be there. Each of the performances we’ve seen under Deneve have been special hand-picked pieces, often with a French theme. He was clearly very attached to them. And we could tell. I’m curious how he would do with pieces that were not his hand-picked favorites…

    Comment by STW — December 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm

  4. What a delight Steohan Deneve was at Tanglewood this summer when he conducted Shostakovich’s 5th with confidence and aplomb. I am very partial to Asher Fisch as a candidate for next music director, however, I was won over ny Deneve by this performance. clearly the orchestra respects Deneve, and he seems to keep discipline in the string section while letting the woodwinds free, so the BSO can truly soar especially with French and Russian composers.

    Comment by KLM — December 9, 2012 at 11:22 pm

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