This week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program is uncommonly interesting: the conductor is Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic; the soloist is violinist Julian Rachlin in his BSO debut, taking the place of Lisa Batiashvili, who has been placed on the injured list; and the programming had some seldom performed works by Dutilleux and Stravinsky alongside warhorses by Tchaikovsky and Ravel.
This was our first opportunity to see Gilbert in action, and he does manifest an imposing, if somewhat ungainly, presence, giving the appearance of an adolescent still getting the hang of an adult-sized body. His hands, though, are quick and supple, and his beat is firm and communicative (more on communication later).
The opening work was Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles (1964) for large orchestra. The BSO previously performed it only in 1985, though the Cleveland Orchestra, for which it was written, played it here in 1965. In five connected “movements” (really just sections), it takes materials presented at the beginning, with a fixation on the pitch E, and doesn’t so much vary them as refract them in different moods and lights: incantatory (the opening), linear, obsessional, torpid and flamboyant. The various sections stress different orchestral choirs, as well: we especially liked the woodwind filigree of the first section and the lovely chordal string harmonies of the second (a bit odd for something billed as linear, but take beauty where and as you find it). The performance as best we could tell on first hearing, was superior, and all the featured players shone. Gilbert was clearly engaged and on top of every detail.
The sound of the Dutilleux is reminiscent at times of Messiaen, at others of Bartók, but the sensibility remained resolutely French. Hugh Macdonald’s program note quotes the composer saying that the loosening of rhythm to avoid regular pulses is one of the strong points of contemporary music. French music, of course, has always exhibited a rhythmic freedom deriving from the irregularities of French speech stresses, so this attitude is understandable in context. On the whole, however, the price paid in listener disorientation for such arrhythmia may have been higher than the value of the compositional freedom it bought: boundaries do stimulate creative juices, after all, even if only to set up expectations that exist to be thwarted.
After a mass exodus of players, including most of the first chairs, the orchestra and Rachlin settled in for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35. Let us be up front with our biases: this is far from our favorite violin concerto, just as Tchaikovsky is far from our favorite composer. However, among the top half-dozen or so popular works of its type, it is second only to the Mendelssohn in the pure ravishing beauty of its melodic content. If performers of the requisite skill aim for this target, success will follow. That is exactly how Rachlin and Gilbert pitched their performances, so the enthusiastic reception they received (including a big ovation after the first movement) on Thursday was as it arguably should have been. That said, we did have reservations.
Born in Lithuania, Rachlin has been a resident (to the extent that any peripatetic virtuoso can be said to be resident anywhere) of Vienna since early childhood. His sound is not big, but it is intensely sweet, after the fashion of Zino Francescatti, and his technical chops are similarly impressive—his harmonics were stunning and his pizzicati crystalline. He and Gilbert gave excellent performances; it’s too bad they were not the same performance. Rachlin gave us rubato writ large: not within individual phrases, but as sectional punctuation. The second subject of each outer movement, as well as the “official” first subject of the first, was slowed to a crawl, the better to build up a racing conclusion; while Gilbert took it at full throttle whenever an orchestral tutti presented itself. Gilbert also went in for some over-exuberant gesturing and body English—it’s not really necessary to gesticulate for every note of a triplet, as he did in the slow movement. We have to ask: does Tchaikovsky really require even more expressive exaggeration than he wrote into the score? What was lost here was any sense of continuous compositional arc, sacrificed to local effects. Not our samovar of chai.
Following intermission came the high point of the program for us, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, completed in 1945. It began life as something concertante, as a residue there are prominent parts for an orchestral piano, ably and judiciously played by Vytas Baksys, and harp, commendably executed by Jessica Zhou. The BSO has not performed this piece in nearly a dozen years, and the last time only at Tanglewood. This is odd, because it has more curb appeal than most of Stravinsky’s post-Diaghilev music. One reason, we might conjecture, is that it imposes large rhythmic demands on the musicians, which the BSO players met with deceptive ease. We don’t mean this harshly, but from an interpretive standpoint, once the notes and rhythms are accounted for, this piece rather plays itself: the dynamics are either loud or soft, and Stravinsky’s phrases tend not to require a lot of flow. That said, we’ve heard mellower readings of this work than Gilbert gave it. Still and all, this was a highly satisfying performance—kudos, on top of the others, to Elizabeth Rowe, flute and William R. Hudgins, clarinet, for their lovely contributions to the slow movement.
The evening wrapped with Ravel’s La Valse, yet another stunning orchestral showpiece from probably the greatest master of orchestration ever. One hears this piece fairly often (the BSO last played it in 2011 in Boston and just this past summer at Tanglewood), but it remains mysterious—just what did Ravel mean by the great pile-up at the end? Was it an earnest savaging of 19th-century society, or social or political satire? It certainly wasn’t just for fun, like the raspberry Ives blew at the end of his second symphony. One way to imagine the intended effect might be as a parallel to Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” with the fiendish smirk of war bringing an end to the careless (in both senses) swirl of Habsburg society—and, by extension, of all of 19th-century Europe.
Be all that as it may, Gilbert conducted a sumptuous and, naturally, highly polished performance. The lower strings’ opening was thrillingly just above the threshold of audibility, and the sonic miasma that surrounds the opening waltz strains lifted ever so gradually until the brilliant fortissimo that “reveals” the ballroom full of revelers. While the final section began a bit more suddenly than might have been accomplished, the build to the train-wreck conclusion was immensely and horrifically satisfying.