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.
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.