Charles Dutoit is spending lots of time with the BSO this spring. He stepped in for an ill Lorin Maazel last week to conduct a memorable Mahler and Mozart program, taking this week’s program of Glinka, Rachmaninoff and Berlioz as well, and he’ll be traveling with the BSO in Maazel’s place, along with pianist Behzod Abduraimov, for a tour in China and Japan next week.
Friday’s matinee event was, well, pretty much fantastique, the orchestra and conductor seeming awfully relaxed with other. A good thing, for the most part.
Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila was dispatched with great expedition, a rousing showpiece for the full complement of string players, and a good warmer-up for Dutoit (conducting from memory) and this orchestra.
The 24-year-old Uzbekistan-born pianist, Behzod Abduraimov joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, making his conception of the work apparent from the first notes, and dramatically more real with his final phrase. This was not to be a lightweight projection of a more elegant, water-colored work by the composer. Abduraimov was going for the kill, and it wasn’t always clear whether the piano was his weapon or his prey (or something more). But that was a good thing: his attack was powerful and precise, and he, hot-blooded. With him, the force is.
Dutoit did his best push-puppet imitation to emphasize the dramatic architectural leaps in the Paganini theme. Flexible knees, has he. The arc of variations gave us a huge spectrum of color, richness and luminescence (so many string tremolos), with Abduraimov almost always at the fore, rendering a full Rachmaninov palette of rich sound. In the ‘western’ sounding variation, the brass challenged him to retreat, which he would do, but only on his terms, as when he gave beautiful accompaniment to a refined obligato violin solo from Tamara Smirnova. And when Rachmanimov called for a gentlemanly, lilting, almost-elderly nonchalance, young Abduraimov delivered.
With the arrival of the famous, lyrical inversion of the Paganini theme, Abduraimov turned his power inward, with an imploring (searching) question and answering within this beautiful theme. This was breath-taking music making that only got better when the violins took over in full force and, while Abduraimov projected huge chords in concert with the orchestra. Beautifully wrought under Dutoit’s command. Just enough restraint.
In the remaining variations, Abduraimov treated us to a display of bold virtuosity, revealing complex rhythms and syncopation, with no small amount of savagery. A little brooding brutality wrapped around a core of melancholy and contained anger.
Earlier, the pianist was first to briefly introduce the Dies irae (death?) motif that Rachmaninov insinuates into this work. (We were to be treated to much more of that in the Berlioz that would follow). As this piece comes to a close, we heard the Dies irae theme from the orchestra, although now with Rachmaninovian irony, sounding square, like a band. Then, almost instantly, the final moments of the piece come as delightful contrast, described by Harlow Robinson in his insightful program notes, as an “amusingly understated restatement of the jaunty tail end of Paganini’s theme.”
But Abduraimov delivered something different, turning the work and performance on its tail. He rendered the final notes with total resignation, fully bowed to the instrument, to the piece, and to the moment. Of course!…what he had been driving at the whole time! The crowd’s appreciation of the young pianist kept them standing for five curtain calls, well after the lights had gone up.
Dutoit conducted Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique from memory as well. He focused quite lots of attention on the basses to his right, pulling giant pizzicatos from them early on, then urging them to sustain a pedal under the violin and horn ‘mountain theme,’ and urging more throughout. Particularly with offbeat accents, emphasizing (rather than hiding) much of the intended bizarre nature of this wonderful, wacky piece. Had he focused more on his left…?
Often during the Berlioz, it seemed that much of the first violin sound came from the front of the section. The esteemed and, it seemed, excited concertmaster could be heard alone above the section at times, especially when several of his entrances came before the rest of the section. (Or, where all the rest of them late?). The other string sections played as tighter groups throughout the Berlioz.
Dutoit’s interpretation allowed for generous pauses after periods of considerable pacing. Much like the previous week’s Mahler, brass were encouraged to play freely and fully. As were the winds. A super-saturated, bold performance all ‘round.
The “Ball” was a blast.
Robert Sheena’s English horn solos (along with offstage oboe) framing the “Scene in the Country” were just right, full of pause, and earthy, rich sound emanating from silence then dissolving, setting the stage for the movement, and a needed departure from the excess and abandon of all that frames this movement.
The “March to the Scaffold” brought demonic bassoons (witches brooms, they are) balanced by scary bursts of brass, more wonderful bassoon now in staccatos, then more gusto and real brilliance from the all the brass.
In the “Witches Sabbath,” Mike Roylance, tuba player, shone. Without being pushy, he gave the impression in the “Dies irae” that he could pit his one instrument against the entire orchestra (fellow brass included; against him, that is) in a power struggle to determine “top” voice, without over-exerting an iota. Great sound, and extended phrasing! And more of the same soon, from all the brass! As with the week before, they really showed their mettle. Then everyone got into the act. Wind wars, string wars, and percussion explosions (along with all sorts of programmatic sounds of storms, and more metaphoric impending bad weather). There was the illusion of a ‘free for all,’ all under careful eye-ear-baton of Maestro Dutoit.
The bass drum matched forces briefly with the tuba (who else could compete?) to bring the raucous work to a close, while English horn player Robert Sheena, (enjoying time off after the country scene) was beaming, enjoying the well-orchestrated mêlée, particularly the superb playing from his fellow wind players, from smack-dab center of the orchestra, while the rest of us did from the Hall. Who needs opium when we can experience this?!