The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Assistant Conductor, Ken-David Masur, made an earlier than planned subscription debut this week after scheduled guest conductor, Tugan Sokhiev, was compelled to withdraw owing to the flu and a sinus infection. Masur and the orchestra demonstrated their professionalism, leaving Sokhiev’s program unchanged and giving a heartily enjoyable performance. The outer works showcased the work of two master orchestrators, Berlioz’s “Le corsaire” Overture and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and cellist Johannes Moser gave a fine account of Saint-Saens’s first cello concerto.
Among the most literary of composers, Hector Berlioz took inspiration from the works of both James Fenimore Cooper and Lord Byron in writing Le corsaire, as is clear from his colorful musical narration; Masur and the BSO were more than willing to be storytellers. The brilliant opening string runs were very slightly fuzzy in ensemble, but this happily proved atypical: indeed, it was frequently the bracing rhythm, dotted or off the beat that made this performance cogent. Additionally, the slower, highly Romantic passages ebbed and flowed seductively. The mercurial moods of this overture, handled indifferently, could easily have felt like a series of disjointed episodes, but under Masur they progressed naturally from one to the next like a yarn from a master storyteller.
Camille Saint-Saens’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor is one of the most beloved in the repertoire for the composer’s skill in exploiting the entire range and color-spectrum of the instrument. Saint-Saens avoided the traditional three-movement structure, opting instead for a single continuous movement of diverse moods and tempi. German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser gave a passionate and full-toned account, equally compelling in the stormy opening sextuplets and the meltingly tender bridge that follows. Both orchestra and soloist made an exquisite atmosphere of the delicate quasi-minuet section; the muted strings were silky of sound and graceful of motion. En route to the recapitulation, Moser and the orchestra exchanged brilliant passagework, and the coda concluded rousingly in the major. It should be noted that accompanying a bass-baritone instrument without covering it is a dicey business in louder passages: Masur and the BSO maintained exemplary balances throughout. (A note to the annotator: the picture of Saint-Saens playing the organ lists it as Saint-Sulpice; in fact, it is La Madeleine, where the composer was the titulaire.)
It was shrewd programming to place Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade as the other bookend of the evening: both Berlioz and Rimsky were renowned for their superlative orchestration skills, concocting orchestral colors never heard theretofore. Moreover, Scheherazade was similarly inspired by a piece of literature, The 1001 Nights (or The Arabian Nights). Interestingly, Rimsky originally specified actual selections from the enormous collection of fairytales but later withdrew these titles, noting, “I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each.” While Scheherazade herself is represented by the solo violin of concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, the orchestra too spins tales over four movements linked by common musical material. Lowe and his Stradivarius narrated with imagination and spontaneity, never forgetting that Scheherazade’s life quite literally depends on her ability to beguile her new husband, the sultan, over many nights. The stern, overbearing opening theme painted a sultan as imposing as anyone could wish though, in accordance with the composer’s intentions, it is put to many other purposes over the course of the whole work. The second movement features many woodwind solos, and these players were given maximum latitude in their quasi-cadenzas; this was possibly the most “Arabian” effect in the whole work since, curiously, Rimsky largely shunned that most characteristic Middle Eastern color, the augmented second. Amour pervaded the third movement, with the great upward-downward scales from wind players representing what couldn’t be spoken of in polite society. In this context Masur used a particularly round beat pattern that may have led a couple times to some fuzzy ensemble in the violins, and I for one wanted slightly more percussion in the staccato woodwind theme—the snare drum in particular was so understated as to be inaudible sometimes. But overall, the movement left us in a warm glow. The finale was a near-continuous display of orchestral virtuosity, both solo and ensemble. The precise rapid-fire tonguing of the brass and woodwinds made repeated notes (or spectacular passagework, in the piccolo’s case) very exciting. One could envision whirling dervishes—or ballet dancers pirouetting exactly 360 degrees, repeatedly. Later, in the build-up to what was once listed as “the shipwreck”, the percussion was too loud several times, covering the rest of the orchestra. Still, the suspended cymbal made the exact moment of collision with the rock terrifying. In the coda, the solo storyteller keened affectingly over the mournful strings, and at the very end, the winds gave us a beautifully tuned chord with the violin gleaming over them like the evening star.
Given that some obvious thought went into planning this program, it would have been a pity to alter it when Tugan Sokhiev was forced to cancel. I’m grateful that Ken-David Masur, Johannes Moser, and the BSO rose to the challenge and gave us a performance full of passion and color, with many rewards.