In an exciting preview of the orchestra’s upcoming Asia tour, last night the Boston Symphony Orchestra, directed by Charles Dutoit, presented Russian music and featured pianist Behzod Abduraimov.
Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (1867) in the well-known Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement and orchestration (first heard in 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death) was the opener. Harlow Robinson’s program note explores the complicated history of this orchestral fantasy and the impossibility of achieving any definitive version of what the composer really wanted, thanks to all the states of revision left incomplete at the time of his death. Even Stokowski’s famous recording in the Disney Fantasia soundtrack is heavily cut and reorchestrated. In any form, though, the basic idea of a musical depiction of a witches’ Sabbath or, in Russian, “St. John’s Eve,” remains constant, along with the variations on a folklike tune. In this performance, I found the music tame, with some of the tempi on the slow side while phrasing and pacing seemed staid. This was more a dream of St. John’s Eve than a musical depiction of the wild summer night filled with witches and goblins. (Might I have in mind a performance of a different version of this piece and so missed the appeal of this reading?)
With Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934), we are on surer musical footing, owning a recording with the composer at the keyboard. Inspired by Paganini’s 24th violin caprice, and the legends surrounding the violinist and his preternatural talent, this concertoesque suite of variations presents technical and musical challenges at every turn. Abduraimov is a dramatic performer who uses heightened gestures which emphasize his varieties of touch. Both he and Dutoit communicated to orchestra and audience alike the dynamism and richly nuanced diversity in Rachmaninoff. The orchestra joined in the thrilling journey, matching spirit, character, and phrase. While the music remains familiar, the performance was fresh and cohesive across the breadth of the composition. The standing ovation Abduraimov received was swift.
Following intermission, Dutoit and the orchestra offered Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (1888). Conducting from memory, Dutoit possesses a clear vision of the piece in its entirety, an appreciation for larger structure that came through in performance. Throughout there were good pacing and wonderful transitions between themes and sections within the four movements. The quiet opening Andante announced the theme, here with a sense of interiority and intimacy that left room for the phrase to expand. Then entered the Allegro con anima, again starting subtly before swelling and developing, with declamatory interjections along the way. The Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza opened with the strings swelling from quiet to full, yet still missing a crucial something; it found its complement in the horn solo beautifully realized by James Sommerville. Once that missing piece of the musical puzzle fell into place, the movement took flight. The Valse: Allegro moderato was swift and energetic yet not rushed in the lush forte passages. Here Dutoit took the licenza denied in the second movement, and to great effect. The Finale opened with a full-bodied yet mobile maestoso and again there was a breadth of dynamics and timbres. I was struck by the walking bass line in Allegro vivace; often bombastic, here it began in a more understated vein rather than a heavy march leading to an increasingly inevitable conclusion.
I found this reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony to be most compelling, and appreciate the care and attention Dutoit lavished.