Having enjoyed a moving and engaging Tanglewood Friday and Saturday from the BSO, we eagerly awaited Sunday afternoon’s well-known works under conductor Jacques Lacombe, and were ultimately enraptured with the ensuing spirit and character. Worth special mention was the marvelous climax to the second act of Verdi’s Aida. In this ebullient writing from a composer in his prime, the orchestra and chorus alike communicated great energy, and sensitively supported a most splendid line-up of six soloists. All credit should go to Lacombe for presiding over so festive an atmosphere and so epic an ensemble, including the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which had already this weekend sustained polish and admirable emotional conviction over two demanding programs. This concert was given in recognition of the Boston Symphony Association of Volunteers, and was dedicated to the memory of the wonderful conductor Rafael Frühbeck, who had been slated to direct, but who sadly died earlier in the summer. Such a triumphal, joyful and precise display of orchestral verve was surely a fine tribute.
The opener, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, is a beloved staple and clearly an audience favorite. Gabriela Montero swept to the piano, and played with obvious mental facility and technical command, communicating authentic leisure and spontaneity which often come to performers like Montero who are adept in improvisation. Shored by a profligate bank of eight basses who played beautifully throughout, the orchestra evinced strong ensemble and purposefulness. Lacombe presided with increasing confidence and ease as the afternoon progressed, but with its heavy mirroring and odd sub-dividing judder, we did not find his conducting style the most elegant or efficient.
Also, there was a somewhat dislocating disparity between Montero’s execution and the style of the concerto. She conveyed a certain degree of detachment and casualness which might, in other circumstances, have made for a reading more like that of Rachmaninoff’s own recordings. However, to be wholly effective, this music depends on a conveyance of contained power and sensitive muscularity to harmonize form and sound. From the opening chords of the first movement, which seemed somewhat perfunctory and which came to the boil too readily, we were not wholly convinced. Montero broached the technical requirements of the piece without apparent effort, but the tone of the piano did not fully project (we were seated in the middle of the Shed, and the effect was somewhat veiled and muted—this was not in consequence of any diminished dynamic range, and was quite unlike Lewis’ Friday-night pianism, which rang even at the points of greatest restraint). Montero basked in the orchestral passages, turning to face the strings with infectious appreciation. Overall affect was more of execution than realization—a Sunday afternoon walk-in-the-park Rachmaninoff, wholly alien to the performances that tend more to our tastes. While there were some exquisitely nuanced and colored moments, some of the cantabile melodies weren’t sustained adequately to create the impression of perfect seamlessness. We could also have done with more of the fire broadly typical of Argerich, or more of the lucent tenderness of Zimerman’s recording of this concerto. There were sparks kindling towards the end of the third movement, but beforehand uneasiness characterized the general coherence of ensemble, and particularly Lacombe’s direction—this was particularly marked in contrast with Honeck’s wit, economic energy and assertion of the previous nights. It was as if Montero and Lacombe were not comfortable, and the power balance unsettled. Lacombe did establish a rich and sustained string sound in the second movement, and it was here that Montero’s response was most satisfying; she played introspectively and reflectively, drawing a palpable focus and concentration from the audience, which was rewarded with an elegantly placed final cadence. It was in the second movement that communication between Montero and Lacombe seemed most fluent, and the conducting became more free and enabling. Nervous energy characterized the opening of the final movement as Montero created a serial reading when a more sustained and narrative one of structure might have been more substantially satisfying. Admittedly, it was Sunday afternoon, but more drama might have made for relaxation by release, rather than approach. We hasten to add that Rachmaninoff performed by such wonderful musicians is an undeniable delight.
After the intermission, we were treated to the impressive ranks of the Festival Chorus and six all-star soloists in excerpts from Verdi. The selections were clearly intended to cheer with memorable melodies and spectacle. Lacombe seemed much more in his element in this repertoire, and seemed to coordinate the players with greater cheer. The opening wind passage of the Overture to Nabucco was splendidly voiced and expressive, and the dramatic pacing felt natural and expansive. The famous “Va, pensiero” was sung with great lyricism, and interpreted the text’s ‘soft, warm breezes’ as a piece with Tanglewood’s post-storm sunshine. Performances that have associated this repertoire with a more robust form of nationalism have tended to a more demonstrative (for which read ‘loud’) communication—we feel that the round softness of the Festival Chorus’ approach might be more akin to what Verdi had intended, before all the uniforms and such intervened—it made for a refreshing change most in sympathy with this context. If we were to quibble, there might have been a little more soprano in the divisi; regardless.
The pinnacle of the afternoon was the wonderfully spirited triumphal Finale from Aida. This is some of the most satisfying Verdi there is, with its exoticist idea, contrasting groupings, colorful orchestrations and dramatic dialogues. Both orchestra and chorus were lively to these pleasures, particularly the percussion section who could not have worked with more precision and attentiveness to Lacombe, who energized all. The long-bell fanfare trumpets, placed to both sides of the stage, played with utmost accuracy; not a split note was to be heard. The basses were once more outstandingly manful, and the oboes seemed to relish their ‘Egyptian’ moments with great wit and knowingness. It goes without saying that all the soloists were very fine vocally, but Morris Robinson as Ramfis stood out by dint of his agility and more mobile projection. He stood with poise, and delivered with bravura, which made him sparkle on a stage full of outstanding musicians. John Oliver deserves special mention for an immaculately prepared chorus; they sing with assurance and expression, consistently attentive and delivering.
John Robinson is director of music at St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge and his wife Emma Kerry read literature at Oxford.