in: Reviews

January 11, 2013

Immense and Horrific Satisfactions

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Alan Gilber conducts BSO with violinist Julian Rachlin (Stu Rosner photo)

Alan Gilber conducts BSO with violinist Julian Rachlin (Stu Rosner photo)

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.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

11 Comments

  1. This is certainly not one of those situations where the commenter wonders if the reviewer attended the same concert. Mr Koven and I were definitely listening to the same thing, and I bow to his musicological expertise at noticing aspects which went over my head.

    No doubt I’ve heard the Tchaikovsky violin concerto before, but maybe not in a live performance. At any rate, although the themes were familiar, it felt as if I was hearing the piece as a whole for the first time. As the first movement was nearing its conclusion, I was thinking, “It would be good to applaud the soloist after this movement.” So when the applause was clearly more than the usual scattering of “people who don’t know any better,” I joined in with delight. Someone behind me yelled, “Bravo.” Mr. Rachlin looked bemusedly toward Maestro Gilbert with body language that seemed to be a combination of, “There’s no help for it,” “You’re the boss,” and “What do we do now?”

    During the Stravinsky at one point the rhythm struck me as being like early rock ‘n roll. Soon I got an impression of “In the Mood” (without the longer note at the end of the phrase).

    “La Valse” is one of the pieces I haven’t really cared for (although I’d probably choose it over “Till Eulenspiegel”), but I stuck around for it nonetheless. Perhaps it’s a matter of heightened expectations not being met, but the train-wreck didn’t turn out to be as bad as I had thought it would be. On reflection, I realize that I enjoyed the piece more than I had been planning to. Perhaps hearing more valse and less wreckage from Maestro Gilbert and the Bostons than I had expected contributed to my enjoyment.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 11, 2013 at 11:54 pm

  2. V.R.K. is quite right! The Tchaikovsky started like one of those tugs-of-war between soloist and
    conductor, with Rachlin languishing in the sonority and Gilbert saying “Let’s get on with it.”
    The concerto would be more compelling with some of the oft-repeated passage work deleted, as done
    in some recordings (early Heifetz among them.)

    I have read in several places that La Valse, sketched before the outbreak of WWI, >was< a comment
    on the slide of schmaltz into catastrophe, as the music depicts. The BSO played brilliantly, but
    not with quite the abandon of Munch's years.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 12, 2013 at 1:04 pm

  3. A few years ago a young pianist appearing at the Gardner Museum prefaced a performance of the solo-piano version of La Valse (yes, it exists, but is rarely performed due to its insane difficulty) with an amusing précis of the original balletic program, which began in elegance and ended in catastrophe; it evoked waltzers on the Titanic. She then proceeded to give an absolutely fearless performance, the only viable approach, I would think, as the work pretty much demands a death-or-victory commitment from the performer.

    Ravel denied that the work had any parodistic intent, or indeed any extramusical associations at all, but when a French composer in 1920 produces a work in which the very pattern of Germanic civility and elegance, the waltz, collapses into an orgy of barbarism and violence, and then denies he meant anything by it, we do not need to take him at his word. After all, it was the 20’s; sincerely expressing your intentions was regarded as at best bad form, and at worst ridiculous.

    An interesting synchronicity (a word coined by Jung about the same time; another synchronicity) provides an insight into the choices available to composers at this time. At the notorious play-through of the dual-piano version of La Valse for Diaghilev which led to the irremediable breakdown of relations between Ravel and the impresario, Stravinsky was in the room, but did not say a word. The Ballets Russes were at the time rehearsing Pulcinella, so at the same time these two utterly dissimilar composers were both both creating nostalgic, backwards-looking works, but it was Stravinsky who produced a work free of any obvious taint of ironic distance (it is there, but only as a kind of seasoning, to heighten the flavor), and Ravel who, though deeply affectionate towards the form he parodied, could not avoid the recognition that it had been rendered absurd by time, and satirized it in spite of himself. Thus La Valse is both an apotheosis of the waltz and a parody of the waltz. In this need to break down the distinction between the parody of a thing and the thing itself, Ravel resembles another composer with whom he otherwise has little in common: Mahler.

    Comment by SamW — January 13, 2013 at 9:38 am

  4. Sam W’s observations about _La valse_ are right on the mark. I’m not sure who first applied the term “Valse macabre” to this work but George Perle borrowed it in comparing _La valse_ to the _Marsch_ in Berg’s Three Pieces for orchestra, op. 6, which he called a “Marche macabre.” It’s worth thinking about Ravel’s other waltzes, too, in this connection. His seven _Valses nobles et sentimentales_, with title borrowed from Schubert, are one of the great piano works of the 20th century, fragile flowers that require a complete technique and utter sensitivity of touch; there are a couple of echoes of these pieces in the bigger one. There is also the waltz _A la manière de Borodine_, a one-minute gem, and the “Beauty and the Beast” waltz in _Ma Mère l’Oye_, and (probably his last one in the form, unless you include _Don Quichotte à Dulcinée_) the _Valse américaine_ in _l’Enfant et les sortilèges_. Add to these music-hall waltzes by Satie, and the smaller number of waltzes by Debussy, including _Hommage à Haydn_ and _La plus que lente_, and you’ve pretty much summed up the French waltz in the 20th century — you have to go to American popular music to approximate it after that.

    Diaghilev’s reaction to _La valse_ was obviously a big mistake, unusual for one whose critical judgment and taste were normally unerring. But as far as I know, Stravinsky never said anything about it either.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — January 13, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  5. The real lesson of this concert: we are reminded not to rush the search for a music director lest we end up with a comparably serviceable talent, nothing more.

    Comment by Jerome — January 13, 2013 at 5:09 pm

  6. Charles Munch liked to program Valses nobles and La Valse as a
    set, beginning the latter work without a pause. Seiji also did this on at least one occasion,
    and I must say, it is very effective.

    Comment by Brian Bell — January 14, 2013 at 4:02 pm

  7. I wonder why WCRB did not repeat the performance on Sunday? They reportedly had live broadcast of the Gilbert’s evening on Saturday. I was not there and I do not know if they did. On Sunday at 1PM they, according to the schedule, shall repeat the Saturday’s night concert, in that unfortunate and severely compromised quality, but still available. I sat down with my Kitty to hear the re-broadcast but CRB played a re-broadcast from the winter of last year by Giancarlo Guerrero lead BSO with The Rite of Spring. I wonder what the reason was and why Gilbert’s evening went dark. Was Mr. Gilbert please with the concert that he pulled the re-broadcast from the air?

    Comment by Romy the Catf — January 16, 2013 at 8:10 am

  8. Romy —

    They now rebroadcast the Saturday concerts on the Sunday a week later. You and kitty can hear Gilbert, Rachlin, and the BSO on Jan. 20.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 16, 2013 at 8:34 am

  9. Many of the equivocations expressed about this program and conductor in the above review and comments would likely not have applied last night. One heard, instead, our fabulous BSO in the hands of an energetic, thoughtful, and congenial musician, one with whom most on stage – if smiles and mini-ovations at the end of each piece were indicative – felt he was right where he belonged, leading a remarkably far-reaching and probing program at a very high level of achievement. Dutilleux’s Metaboles shone and sparkled in a compelling interpretation and spot-on execution, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto ebbed and flowed with the subtlest of rubati and dynamic shadings with (by this concert, anyway) hand-in-glove unanimity and stunning virtuosity from Julian Rachlin. Stravinsky’s Symphony rollicked and rolled with huge energy of playing, never straying into harshness or stridency while making its points, and Ravel’s La Valse, despite an unfortunately rushed finale, bewitched with its matchless orchestration and Gilbert’s clear-headed direction. This man has everything the BSO might want in a prospective Music Director: youth, energy, probing musicianship, clear and helpful cuing and conducting, interpretive acumen, and a wonderful sense of programming, the latter one of James Levine’s most memorable legacies here in Boston. I, for one, hope Gilbert returns here often.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — January 16, 2013 at 12:00 pm

  10. Must chime in as well regarding Tuesday night’s concert. The program was as cannily planned as a fine dining experience. A distinguished soloist providing a transfusion of vitality into a beloved warhorse plus a high-quality Stravinsky work rarely heard in Symphony Hall: savory Russian fare sandwiched between two French courses, the piquant Dutilleux as starter and the decadent, dessert-like Ravel to finish. Rachlin was on fire and the horsehair was flying. This was an assured, personalized old-school reading that tended to details in a way more generalized interpretations often don’t. Better to hear a helping of personality in this of all pieces than a proficient run through. Nothing exceeded the bounds of taste into caricature. Gilbert seemed happiest in the Stravinsky, a beautifully precise reading that did full justice to the work’s rhythmic vitality and exuberance. The orchestra’s engagement was apparent – they seemed to be enjoying thenselves as much as Gilbert was. La valse, a piece the orchestra could probably play on autopilot, sounded like anything but a run through. Gilbert’s considered approach emphasized the traditional waltz elements initially, the better to watch it mutate as the piece progresses. Again the orchestra responded with obvious commitment. Very satisfying.

    Comment by FKalil — January 18, 2013 at 9:53 am

  11. ***Joe Whipple: They now rebroadcast the Saturday concerts on the Sunday a week later.

    Thanks, Joe. That was an incredibly damn WCRB move. I am sure that other Ivy League schools imbecile who was training for 5 years to sell potatoes consulted WCRB to do it. So, if I missed Saturday concert then I have no way to preview what the performance was all about and to decide if it worth for me to go in the Symphony Hall on Tuesday night? This is as damn as it might be.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm

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