The always stylish Charles Dutoit leads the BSO in a pair of Shed concerts at this weekend: Moderns on Friday night (Ravel, Sibelius, Stravinsky) and Romantics on Sunday afternoon (Mussorgsky, Glazunov, Berlioz).
The first half of Friday’s program contrasted a generally hushed, delicate Mother Goose Suite with the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Where Ravel revels in kaleidoscopic varieties of solos for the woodwind choir, Sibelius explores the lowest ranges of the strings, juxtaposing chorale-like melodies and brass choir writing with devilishly difficult virtuoso writing for the soloist. As a youthful violinist, Sibelius hoped to become a concert soloist, and his work lunges between Beethoven-like cantilena melody in the second movement and a quickly shifting series of arpeggios, parallel sixths and octaves, flourishes, and cadenzas.
Soloist Leonidas Kavakos [excellent BMInt interview here] is becoming well-known to BSO audiences through his chamber work (performing last night in Ozawa Hall with Emmanuel Ax and Yo-yo Ma) and his now-annual appearances in Boston as soloist and conductor for BSO subscription program [reviewed here and here]. Although usually framed by a halo of strings, Kavakos choose a variety of commanding, growling timbres, featuring the lower, throaty range of his 1724 “Abergavenny” Stradivarius. By turns muscular and lyrical, his playing was reminiscent of his Gramophone Award-winning recording contrasting this version and the original (longer) version of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, the first complete recording of that work [here].
Three curtain calls later, he returned for an encore: the delicate and tastefully ornamented Gavotte and Rondeau from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 (sometimes called the Sonata No. 6 for unaccompanied violin).
Notable string soloists from the BSO included Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, acting as concertmistress for the evening, and Principal Bass Edwin Barker, who anchored the more transparently scored sections in the Sibelius with a warm, incisive tone. Piccolo Cynthia Myers and contrabassoon Gregg Henegar provided dramatic touches of pathos and comedy in the Ravel and Sibelius.
Noted for his elegant control at the podium, Dutoit showed a complete mastery of the many-layered and heftier 1911 (original) version of Petrushka, while encouraging a heavier, darker sound from the strings in the first and last tableaux. Petrushka opens with a festive fair in St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square, a kaleidoscopic panorama of musicians, soldiers, competing street ballerinas, a magician playing a flute, a street musician accompanying his bear on the hurdy-gurdy, and three puppets—Petrushka, a ballerina, and the Moor. Stravinsky shifts focus and shuffles events like a modern filmmaker: musical passages are cut and spliced, rhythmic patterns overlap and fade in and out.
The strings and “hurdy-gurdy” (clarinets in octaves, celesta, and orchestral bells) carried most of the borrowed Russian folk tunes, giving a particularly animated interpretation of the little French music-hall tune “Elle avait un’ jambe en bois,” which would have been recognizable to the opening night Parisian audience a century ago.
The paired clarinets’ bitonal theme in C and F-sharp (Petrushka locked in his room in the second tableau), was much more muted than I’ve ever heard, giving the scene a more intimate, surrealistic quality. The cascading, frantic arpeggios in this scene were the first part of the score composed (even before most of The Rite of Spring); Stravinsky called them “diabolical” and Diaghilev “exasperating.”
Principal trumpet Thomas Rolfe’s fluid, lyrical interpretation of the ballerina’s jaunty theme from the third tableau was elegant and whimsical, perfectly easing in and out of the melody he shared with the flute. This tableau looks easy on the page, but combines disparate musical material and a lot of musical (and choreographed) pushing and shoving: after the ballerina enters, she is grabbed by the Moor and a waltz ensues, but not one composed by Stravinsky. The tunes combine two early Viennese waltzes by Joseph Lanner (1801-1843), a friend of Johann Strauss, Sr., and in turn, these were based on folk dance tunes from Styria.
Craig Nordstrom’s many gorgeous bass clarinet solos (one of the magician’s themes, foreshadowing the “oldest man in the world in The Rite of Spring), darkened the tone of the finale, which disappears quietly into the night.