IN: Reviews

Raveworthy Ravel, Mediocre Mozart at BSO


Bernard Haitink (Dominick Reuter photo)
Bernard Haitink (Dominick Reuter photo)

Pumped up to catch 86-year old exemplar Haitink on the podium, I more or less put French standout pianist Thibaudet to the back of my mind. But what took place Thursday evening at Symphony Hall surprised. In step with this mighty conductor’s every beat, the Boston Symphony Orchestra came up flat-footed in Mozart. With much gauziness in Ravel’s Mother Goose, one wondered what kind of ballet Haitink had in mind. Mention must also be made of the inclusion of a strange neo-Baroque work by Thomas Adès. What I had come for, however, materialized in Ravel’s Concerto in G—it was Jean-Yves Thibaudet and lights out, ignition warning on!

Originally conceived as a kid’s four-handed piano piece, the story telling of Mother Goose would be actualized as ballet. To find the complete work on the program as opposed to the suite so often heard was gratifying. Most memorable about this performance are the fleeting brilliant bird-like calls of the flute in the opening, the “beastly” dark, but smiling singing of the contrabassoon later on, and the solo violin’s own aviary whistling high in the treble.

Finally, in the quick-stepping oriental Pagodas scene, I could see ballet, and it was energizing. But as colorful and finely tuned the orchestra was, virtually all of this Ravel made for a good soundtrack not a concert piece.

Enter phenomenon Jean-Yves Thibaudet igniting the BSO and Haitink in the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. A nod to Stravinsky with fired and wired beat patterns preceded a more extended nod, this time to Gershwin, with steamy blues notes. When Ravel’s voice, sounded, his distinctive harmonization underpinned a luscious and dreamy second theme. I was completely taken in.

There were bold contrasts from the orchestra the likes of which I had never experienced before. Intensely focused on Ravel’s pianistic ways, Thibaudet found a stride in the first movement that overwhelmed with utterances so completely matching those of the composer. This eclectic raucousness to refinement was a knockout.

Fecund meditation took over in the slow movement. Beauty followed beauty, here a slight rhythmic shift of the waltz time left hand; there a hushed note in the long unaccompanied Bach-Mozart referenced melody. Thibaudet carried out his dominant role with twinkling triplets evolving into feathery quadruplets high above the orchestra. One extraordinary moment came when the orchestra seized upon its slow sustained chords as if they were the fog rolling in.

Lulled by some of the quietest, most delicate pianism ending the slow movement, the last movement’s opening caught us off-guard, causing more than a few of the concert-goers to start in surprise, now fully alert.

Jean Yves Thibaudet (Dominick Reuter photo)
Jean Yves Thibaudet (Dominick Reuter photo)

Dazzling and dumbfounding were Thibaudet’s ways with Ravel’s ever-shifting techniques, and the BSO was right there in the thick of it. The entire concerto was a masterpiece of performance, as thrilling, colorful, imaginative, yet natural as ever could be.

That made Three Studies from Couperin of Thomas Adès all the more dreary. While believing it time that more of this Baroque composer, mostly known for his keyboard works, appears in orchestral garb, Adès’s puzzling grab bag much-reduced forces leaned toward minimalism. I could not help thinking of Stravinsky’s neo-Baroque “Dumbarton Oaks,” sparkling played by Dutoit and BSO. Adès revealed no comparable voice in his take on Couperin.

The real disappointment came with the take on Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C, “Linz.” With terraced dynamics instead of nuanced phrases, with a menuetto morphed as a march, with a typical bang for the finishing cadence, this was unfortunately more neo-Baroque.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Alternatively, the Couperin studies by Ades were: subtle, complex, mysterious, muted — as though evoking a sunken world perceived through a prism of regret and desire. Strangely compelling, indirectly alluding to Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin and imbued with a Ravel-like feeling of “sortilege” (I can’t put the diacritical marks, sorry). Perhaps the Ariadne thread connecting Couperin-Mozart-Ravel-Ades would have been more perspicuous if the program had started with the Linz, then evoked with Ades the playfulness of Couperin (long emphasized, by the way, by our own local harpsichordist Mark Kroll);then unfolding the Ravel in the second half, ending with the indeed Raveworthy Thibaudet..

    Comment by Ashley — April 25, 2015 at 7:37 am

  2. We side with Ashley here on the Ades: There was a fine “distancing” effect of twin orchestras offset in time by one beat, punctuated by xylophone/marimba strokes. It will be enjoyable to hear it again in order to decipher the underlying contents. The Linz did sound uncomfortable as a finale.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 25, 2015 at 8:45 am

  3. Now it can be told: My unkind suggested headline for a review of this concert was “French feast followed by Linzer tort.”

    Comment by David Wright — April 25, 2015 at 3:21 pm

  4. Tuesday evening’s concert was lovely..particularly the
    Ravel Concerto. Haitink at 86 is ageless.
    The Ades is a fascinating work.

    I wonder if those at the BSO who arrange the season schedule know how to read a calendar?
    The two huge posters outside on Mass. Ave listing this concert and next week season finale
    stated Saturday, April 25th and Saturday, April 28th… This is inexcusable. Surely hundreds of
    people have seen this glaring error.

    Comment by Ed Burke — April 30, 2015 at 12:59 am

  5. I attended the Friday afternoon concert, filled with young people on their school vacations. I had forgotten that the BSO could play piano and pianissimo so beautifully; but Haitink had them in the palm of his hand with his renditions from the Mother Goose Suite to the Mozart. The orchestra obviously enjoyed playing for him, given their ovation at the end of the concert. I hope in time that Nelsons will also learn that the BSO can play other than forte! We still can learn from the carefully thought out performances of maestros such as Haitink and Dochnanyi.

    Comment by RSB — May 1, 2015 at 6:44 am

  6. RSB: “I hope in time that Nelsons will also learn that the BSO can play other than forte! We still can learn from the carefully thought out performances of maestros such as Haitink and Dochnanyi [sic].”

    Huh? Some of the most breathlessly spellbinding pianissimos the BSO produced this season were under Andris Nelsons’ baton. And the implication that his performances aren’t ‘carefully thought out’ exposes a fundamental misunderstanding about Nelsons’ prodigious gifts.

    I’d add that we certainly can learn much from maestros like Haitink and Dohnányi, but sometimes what one learns is that a performance can be too careful – a charge often levelled at this weekend’s esteemed conductor.

    Comment by nimitta — May 1, 2015 at 9:14 am

  7. No one who heard Friday’s Brahms 1 would level such a charge.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 1, 2015 at 6:36 pm

  8. RSB, check out the CRB broadcast of Heldenleben over a good system and see what you think of the dynamic range:

    Comment by David Moran — May 1, 2015 at 6:47 pm

  9. To nimitta: there was no implication that Nelson’s performances aren’t ‘carefully thought out”; I am sure Nelsons’ performances will change with time as he matures.

    to David Moran: I was at the Heldenlaben and even the statues shook!

    Comment by RSB — May 1, 2015 at 7:25 pm

  10. Oh, sure, I concur in that take, absolutely; I believe (limited evidence over the decades to some extent) I’ve not heard the BSO that loud since William Steinberg, who really raised the roof. Maybe there was a Levine I missed.

    By my DR suggestion however I meant the other end, the extremely quiet parts of that performance, which I attended and which I thought were extraordinary.

    Comment by David Moran — May 2, 2015 at 12:44 am

  11. Martin Cohn: “No one who heard Friday’s Brahms 1 would level such a charge.”

    So true! It would be unthinkable after yesterday’s concert – Brahms 1 was the performance of a lifetime. The old master’s greatest finale attained to such intensity under Haitink, such exaltation, that it was almost too much to bear. I’m still coming down…

    That and the rare appearance of the sublime Maria João Pires in one of Mozart’s most captivating concertos makes tonight’s ticket a must!

    Comment by nimitta — May 2, 2015 at 8:44 am

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