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BSO Once Again Great French Orchestra


Susan Graham and Bernard Haitink (Stu Rosner photo)
Susan Graham and Bernard Haitink (Stu Rosner photo)

Ravel has a long history at the Boston Symphony, dating from some of the earliest performances in America of his music, and including a time when the great composer himself conducted the on this stage in 1928. Last night we heard Daphnis et Chloé, his largest and longest work, in the original complete version, which even though it is heard relatively seldom compared to the Second Suite, is still indelibly identified with our orchestra, which has recorded it commercially five times. We remember, too, that Pierre Monteux, who conducted the premiere of the ballet in 1912, was director of the BSO for two years and conducted later on dozens of visits. (Nor should I have been surprised to read that the second Daphnis Suite had been performed by the BSO 245 times in 40 years.) Bernard Haitink, who will be 85 years old this year, handled last night’s program with assurance and restraint; though he may be more at home with the Austro-German repertory than this quintessentially French music, his mastery was never in doubt.

Alborada del gracioso, in its 1918 orchestration of the 1905 piece from the Miroirs suite, was the opener. Ravel was born close to the Spanish border and his mother came from a Basque family, so we look for echoes in his work, and this is one of his earliest pieces in a Spanish style. Ravel’s orchestration is brilliant, but perhaps inevitably it lacks the lightness of the original version. The full ensemble is mobilized for strumming like an immense guitar, with clicking percussion and spiccato bowing in the strings. (The score calls for col legno strings at one point, but I didn’t hear it and didn’t see it.) If this arrangement is less successful orchestrally than the Rapsodie espagnole or Debussy’s Ibéria, it is still a good bit of fun, and one can tell that Ravel admired Rimsky-Korsakov. Haitink lowered his baton in the middle section, allowing the solo bassoon a full range of expression.

Shéhérazade is one of Ravel’s earliest works, composed while he was still nominally a student at the Conservatoire, but it ranks as one of the most important sets of orchestral songs ever, and the performance by Susan Graham, who has sung with the BSO before, was flawless; her voice was rich, and every syllable sounded complete. Of the three poems by “Tristan Klingsor,” the first, “Asie,” is longer than the other two combined, and more dramatic as well as the more fantastic. “La flûte enchantée” features a solo flute balancing the voice, and “l’Indifférent” is a lullaby of love. Though not stipulated by the score, it was a good idea to reduce the number of strings; in some ways this cycle can still be regarded as a work for chamber orchestra.

Daphnis et Chloé, in one form or another, is so often heard that the originality of its harmonic idiom is overlooked. It is a more classically-structured harmony than Debussy’s of the same period, but involves a more complex and more chromatic vocabulary of harmonic types. (At the time Ravel worked on Daphnis, Debussy was composing his Préludes for piano and his orchestral set of Images, including Ibéria.) Some of Ravel’s first explorations in polytonality are in Daphnis; Debussy’s were soon to come, in Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien and Khamma. The ballet structure of Daphnis et Chloé involves several set pieces: ritual dances, solo dances, and various swarms like the “Danse guerrière” and the final “Danse générale” for the whole company; mostly these are firmly structured tonally, and the ballet as a whole is framed in A major. But there are other tonal structures as well, including a scary harmonic Leitmotiv: at the moment when the form of the god Pan appears before the sacred grotto, as Daphnis prostrates himself (no. 82 in the score), there is a succession of four distantly related fifths (G-flat, E-flat, A, B-flat) over a low C pedal, and this same succession appears when the “menacing” image of Pan appears over the mountains (no. 152) to frighten away the pirates, leaving Chloé behind. (There’s a wonderful touch of color here: an accented octave F-sharp, first in hand-stopped horns, then in muted horns, and finally in the chorus.)

It wasn’t a flawless performance but it was a thoroughly exhilarating one. There were times in Daphnis et Chloé when Haitink tried to push the tempo and the orchestra wouldn’t be pushed, particularly in the “Danse réligieuse” at the beginning, and later, just before Lyceion’s dance, it was evident that the orchestra and chorus didn’t coordinate completely. But these were minor problems, soon resolved. The “Danse guerrière” (the end of Suite no. 1) has orchestral problems that not even Ravel could fully solve — the harmony is so fast-moving that the string sound becomes distorted; the winds sometimes dangerously overpower the strings; the solo for alto flute descends so low as to be almost inaudible (at this point, too, there was a trumpet entrance four bars too early). Yet it was impossible not to be swept up in the energy of the whole — the kind of music that that old fussbudget and spy, Henry Pleasants, used to deplore as the ne plus ultra of orgiastic orchestral writing. I also admired Haitink’s careful handling of Chloé’s solo dance, in which alternating 3/4 measures are in tempi of 100 and 72 (particularly risky when some of the melodic lines are 4 against 3 beats).

Haitink singled out several players for bows, especially Elizabeth Rowe, who gave the famous flute solo; I would offer cheers as well to solo strings (Malcolm Lowe and Martha Babcock), to the whole percussion section, and to the frantic E-flat clarinet in the final dance.

Much of what I write here today echoes my report of five years ago when the Boston University Orchestra under David Hoose’s direction did the complete Daphnis et Chloé. That was a very good performance, too, also in Symphony Hall. I will also recommend, once more, the old (1955) BSO recording conducted by Charles Munch, who made this work a specialty. The LP (RCA Victor LM-1893 Red Seal) is unsurpassed sonically; it has a seductive Nordic-blond Chloé on the cover, and drypoint illustrations by Andy Warhol in the notes.

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.

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