IN: Reviews

Early and Late 20th-Century Paris Evoked at BSO


About a minute after the audience stood up to cheer the sparkling performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka at Symphony Hall last night, the guest conductor, François-Xavier Roth, age 43, motioned for silence, and announced that the performance should be regarded as a memorial to Pierre Boulez, who died on January 5th at age 90. That was a welcome gesture, but it was also a reminder that Roth’s conducting style, in a small way, was akin to Boulez’s in its expressive chironomy without the use of the baton.

The opening work, Debussy’s Jeux stands not only its composer’s most complex orchestration, but also as one of the most complex scores by any composer of its time. In Memories and Commentaries, Stravinsky wrote of 1912 as a watershed year when Debussy composed Jeux, Schoenberg composed Pierrot Lunaire, Berg the Altenberg Lieder, and Stravinsky himself The Rite of Spring. Jeux was never successful as a ballet—three solo dancers on a tennis court, choreographed by one of them, Vaslav Nijinsky—and there can be no end of speculation as to how successful the score itself meshes with the elaborate scenario. To the listener Jeux offers a kaleidoscopic succession of ideas in short regular phrases, with a panoply of tempi and abundant rubato that are difficult to follow. Yet it is this complexity of sound that has made Jeux a favorite of the post-World War II generation of avant-garde composers and analysts, and the subject of an extensive article by Herbert Eimert that speaks of the “vegetative” structure of its development. But the assembly of ever-changing phrases in Jeux is meticulously unified by a few short motives and a perceptible tonal structure and rich chromatic harmony that takes repeated hearings to get used to. There’s a complex rhythmic language, too, that matches a triple meter that isn’t quite waltzlike against a precisely articulated four-against-three. Above all, Jeux presents an apex in Debussy’s brilliance of orchestral sound, with the next-largest orchestra he ever used. Stravinsky wrote that Debussy consulted him often about details of orchestration while composing Jeux, and it is plain that Debussy had learned from the dazzling filigrees of wind sound and string trills and gruppetti that had made Firebird such a sensation just two years earlier. But Stravinsky himself had already learned quite a lot from La mer.

The Boston Symphony first played Jeux in 1920, directed by Pierre Monteux, and only infrequently after that, under six other conductors, until last night, 96 years after the American premiere, in a performance that was beautifully controlled and fully expressive. We should hear Jeux more often, despite its challenges. If I had anything to criticize in last night’s reading, it would be that the tempi, especially the passages in 2/4, were sometimes too fast; the score uses markings like “cédez” and “retenu” and “modéré” more often than “serrez” or “animez”, but it does build to “violent” near the end. Sometimes the horns and especially the trumpets (four of them!) could have been toned down a notch for better effect. But these are minor complaints.

The 100th birthday of Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) lies one week hence, and it is good to remember the long association that this remarkable French master, a true and original descendant of Debussy and Ravel, has had with the Boston Symphony. I was present at the premiere in 1959 of his Symphony no. 2, called “Le Double” because of its chamber orchestra hidden within the main body, and I heard it again at Tanglewood the following summer; I still remember its distinctive clarinet ripple at the beginning. I had not heard last night’s work before, Le temps, l’horloge (“Time, Clock”), a short cycle of four poems and an interlude, with texts by Jena Tardieu, Robert Desnos, and Baudelaire. It was easy to hear Renée Fleming’s clear enunciation, lovely vocal sound, and generous expression, but because the music was new to me I listened even more closely to the orchestral sound. The orchestra is standard size, with woodwinds and brass by threes, plus a few extra percussion, an accordion, and a harpsichord (like “Le Double”!). But it was harmonically a different world from Jeux. Where Debussy’s large score derives most of its character from upper-register sound, Dutilleux’s explores low-register close-textured harmony, which much of the time seemed like cluster chords superposed over a paratonal, almost triadic bass — cold and warm at the same time—and it’s not surprising that Dutilleux himself remarked on how important is harmony in French music in the 20th century and after. The second song, “Le masque,” began with a blurred chord on multiple winds, very much like Berg’s no. 3 Altenberg song; this was in contrast to the light textures of the first song, which had short gestures of clarinet, harpsichord, and tuba in succession. The Interlude before the final song was mostly monodic, a plain but expressive line in the strings, which dissolved into divided cellos and harpsichord. The last song, “Enivrez-vous!” (Get drunk!), was Baudelaire’s injunction to make the most of human experience (his was the age of absinthe, after all), and Dutilleux gave this a generous amount of regular triple meter, grouped horns, and a hint of the accordion sound such as one might hear in a Paris café-concert. One regretted that this ruminative but sparkling cycle seemed too short. The audience, though they responded politely, seemed somewhat baffled by what might have been too esoteric a sound for them.

Renée Fleming and François-Xavier Roth (Winslow Townson photo)
Renée Fleming and François-Xavier Roth (Winslow Townson photo)

After the intermission, Renée Fleming returned for three of the best-known Chants d’Auvergne in arrangements by Joseph Canteloube, who orchestrated 30 of them. The lullaby, “Brezairola,” listed third on the program, was performed first. From my childhood I remember the superb recording of about a dozen of these favorites by Madeleine Grey, with an orchestra that included some of the most dazzling woodwind playing I’ve ever heard. I suppose that these folksongs are regarded as “light music” to be avoided by most major orchestras, and in fact the BSO didn’t start performing them, sparingly, until 1985. But Fleming’s sound was as lovely as it was precise, and the audience leaped to its feet afterwards.

Stravinsky’s three early Diaghilev ballets all appeared in Paris within the space of three years, 1910-1913. In all the history of music, one can point to only one other such amazing demonstration of rapid growth in the creative spirit of a single composer, and that would be Beethoven’s in the period 1803-05, the leap from his Second Symphony to the Third, the “Eroica”. Stravinsky’s comparable progression from Firebird of 1910 to Petrushka of 1911 is more radical, I think, than the progression from Petrushka to The Rite of Spring of 1912. In Firebird one can still hear the influences of Rimsky-Korsakov and (though Stravinsky would have denied it) Scriabin, and also (Stravinsky admitted it) Debussy; but Petrushka is a whole new tonal world, and includes an original rhythmic language entirely unpredictable from a year earlier. Stravinsky wrote later that Petrushka gave him absolute confidence in his own composer’s ear as he prepared to write The Rite of Spring. The orchestra of the 1911 Petrushka, which we heard last night, is large, with woodwinds by fours; Stravinsky completely revised the orchestration in 1947 with a slightly smaller ensemble, in part for copyright reasons, and he considered the revision “much more skillful.” Many listeners, including me, prefer the original (so did Boulez, who recorded it) for its brash, fearless sound. Of all of Stravinsky’s Diaghilev ballets, Petrushka is the one with the most appealing story—notwithstanding that Stravinsky first imagined Tableau II not as a ballet but as a Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, and worked out a ballet scenario only later with Diaghilev’s painter Alexander Benois. And for all that the Diaghilev company worried that the story wouldn’t work with the audience, the ballet became one of the Ballets Russes’s greatest sucesses. The Shrovetide Fair massed scene in Tableau I is one of the most brilliant examples of perfectly controlled confusion ever composed; so is the quarrel of Petrushka and the Moor at the end of Tableau III. The tutti beginning of Tableau IV is the in-and-out breathing of a gigantic harmonica (“garmushka”, according to Richard Taruskin). Near the end, when Petrushka is killed by the Moor’s scimitar, we hear the ineffably poignant sound of a single piccolo playing a few grace notes at the very bottom of its register. And there was always the question on the final exam of my orchestration class: “Name the four different kinds of tambourine strokes called for in the score of Petrushka.” (Struck with the fist; shaken; trilled with the thumb; and dropped on the floor.) I could go on and on about this fascinating work. But suffice it to say that the performance was terrific—especially the serious metric problems at the end of the group dances in Tableau IV—which the orchestra sailed through effortlessly at full power.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.


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

  1. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Dutilleux was a joint commissioning project that included the BSO, and that Fleming and the BSO performed it in 2007, when it consisted of only the first three numbers. The orchestral interlude and final song were added in 2009, and last night’s performance was the US premiere of that (final) version.

    Mark is right to note the somewhat muted reaction of the audience to the Dutilleux (as contrasted with the big one for the much slighter Canteloube), though it’s unclear (well, it would be, without taking a poll of the audience) whether this was because the idiom was “esoteric.” To me it sounded rather comfortingly old-fashioned, with roots in Fauré, and certainly no stranger than the Harbison symphonies and much else from the last 30 years that the BSO performs to great acclaim.

    Comment by Vance Koven — January 15, 2016 at 5:06 pm

  2. Many years ago Boulez himself conducted the BSO in a brilliant Jeux along with Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante .

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 16, 2016 at 9:38 am

  3. Thanks to the recommendation of a good friend and superb critic, who said we should not miss this concert (having had to forgo our regular seats for Thursday), we went tonight. My god, what a performance. People have thought Renee Fleming was slipping, as did I, but her interpretation tonight was deep, personal, and moving, although in some of the songs, her voice did not carry above the orchestra. Yes, the audience did not seem to understand Enivrez-vous. Reminds me of people at museum exhibitions who look sober-faced at English or French prints of the 1790s-1820s, absorbing “high culture” (thereby, must be high-minded with little human comedy) and missing dogs urinating on soldiers’ pant legs, people throwing contents of their chamber pots out windows, …

    Mark deVoto for a while fought off becoming a critic for the Inteligencer. Thank god he gave in. I enjoyed immensely preparing his reviews (editing being close to nil), and am delighted he is doing more. This one is a masterpiece.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — January 16, 2016 at 11:32 pm

  4. Usually I try to avoid reading reviews of prior performances of upcoming concerts; fresh ears and all that. Friday I succumbed to temptation and read this review, and it was so good that I read it again last night on the subway on my way to the concert. Several of its points came back to me while I listened; at one point I found myself hearing Jeux as a prototype of the 1950’s avant-garde. Fascinating.

    I’ve never read before what Stravinsky had to say about Debussy in those years, which is very interesting. I have, however, read what Debussy had to say about Stravinsky. This is from a letter written to a friend in 1916:

    I’ve recently seen Stravinsky … He says: my Firebird, my Sacre, like a child saying my top, my hoop. And that’s exactly what he is: a spoiled child who, on occasion, gives music a tweak on the nose. He’s also a young savage who wears loud ties, and kisses the ladies’ hands while stepping on their feet. When old, he’ll be unbearable, that is to say, he won’t be able to bear any kind of music; but, for the moment, he’s incredible.

    He professes a great friendship for me, because I’ve helped him climb a height from which he can hurl grenades, which don’t all explode. But, as I say, he’s incredible.

    Comment by SamW — January 17, 2016 at 9:00 am

  5. This was so far a very disappointing concert in a few years. We were not tremendously excited by the program to begin with but wished to attend due to Renee Fleming. Alas, it was a case of a superstar making an appearance in an insignificant province, singing at first quite boring music and at last really simple music, all in all, not very impressive. Yeah, it was Dame Renee but … that was not the staff that made her famous and seriously not something to make one dream.
    Secondly, listening to 1911 version of Petrushka, it became crystal clear that it is deeply wrong to play ballet music unabridged in a purely orchestral form. It is really unsuitable, too graphic, too fragmented and made to be shared with visual experience. Stravinsky was obviously aware of it so that he made an orchestral version in 1947 that is more fitting for a symphony hall setting. Yet I wish we could just see all those ballets in Boston Ballet – Le Sacre, Jeus, Petruska, Romeo & Juliet instead of listening to them every year at BSO. All these composers wrote glorious pieces for symphony orchestra and it would be much more fitting to play any of their concertos, symphonies, oratorios, suites, etc. One suspects that BSO is taking an easy way with these ballet music as obviously it is easier to deliver than Oedipus Rex, for instance, or some of his symphonies. It is a pity. Hopefully the music direction will chose works less beaten and more interesting and suitable for the orchestra performance, requiring no visual/dramatic scene action as in a ballet.

    Comment by Leda Lebedkina — January 18, 2016 at 12:53 am

  6. Leda, the BSO programs Stravinsky’s ballets because they are extraordinary – ‘incroyable’, as Debussy had it – and among his greatest orchestral scores.

    I hear things rather differently than you, it appears – to my ears the 1911 Petrushka surpasses the 1947 version in energy and impact – indeed, it is my favorite of all his works. Like The Firebird and especially The Rite Of Spring, it stands up beautifully as concert music. (Ironically, without the distractions of Nijinsky’s dancers and their antics, that Parisian audience in 1913 might well have received Le sacre more favorably, since it was hardly more radical than Petrushka.)

    As for the BSO’s programming, it is not true at all that Stravinsky’s other great pieces are neglected. Oedipus Rex received a superb performance under James Levine in 2011, and has appeared on BSO programs several other times, if not with Vanessa Redgrave. In recent years the band has played the Symphony in C (2007), the Violin Concerto (2008), the Symphony of Psalms, Capriccio For Piano & Orchestra, and Symphony in Three Movements (2009), the Concerto For Piano & Winds and Symphony of Psalms (2012), and the Concerto in E-flat and Dumbarton Oaks this past season. So much for “taking the easy way”.

    Comment by nimitta — January 18, 2016 at 8:59 am

  7. Dame Renée ? She is American, you know. We don’t do titles. In fact I think that if the UK or one of that lot try to dump one of their shabby, worn-out titles on her we should declare war. We must protect our national resources.

    It’s good to see nimitta’s devastating defense against the absurd calumny that the BSO is “taking an easy way”. Is the BSO supposed to be too timid to take on the Symphony of Psalms, a work it commissioned ? As for the insistence that Le Sacre, for example, should be performed only by ballet companies, well, you’ll have to take that up with practically every symphony orchestra in the world, and their audiences.

    Comment by SamW — January 18, 2016 at 12:12 pm

  8. From Renée Fleming’s bio on the BSO website: “Among her numerous awards are the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal (2011); Sweden’s Polar Prize (2008); the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from the French government (2005); Honorary Membership in the Royal Academy of Music (2003); and honorary doctorates from Carnegie Mellon University (2012), the Eastman School of Music (2011) and The Juilliard School (2003), where she was also commencement speaker.”

    I don’t know if a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur is referred to as “Dame,” but in general I think the title goes with knightly rank.

    As for playing complete ballets in orchestral concerts: certainly the audience doesn’t get the full experience of the ballet-goer. Furthermore, some ballet music isn’t really worth listening to apart from the action it was written to accompany. That is why we have a Nutcracker Suite, which is played so often in preference to the complete ballet that many people think Nutcracker Suite the name of the ballet. Music directors and artistic administrators should take into account how much good orchestral music is gathering dust in their libraries (or hasn’t even gotten into their libraries) before deciding to mount a piece which was written to be performed elsewhere, such as a ballet or an opera.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 18, 2016 at 7:29 pm

  9. The Legion of Honor was invented by Napoleon in order to satisfy an appetite for titles on the cheap, and he gave away thousands of them. It wasn’t a reconstitution of the nobility, but more of a public pat on the back. Bob Dylan is also an officer of the Legion, but he is not generally known as Sir Bob. We probably don’t need to go to war with France just yet. A stiff warning should suffice.

    Comment by SamW — January 18, 2016 at 9:13 pm

  10. Joe Whipple: “As for playing complete ballets in orchestral concerts: certainly the audience doesn’t get the full experience of the ballet-goer. Furthermore, some ballet music isn’t really worth listening to apart from the action it was written to accompany.”

    True enough, Joe, but we’ve been talking about Petrushka, Le Sacre, Jeux – some of the greatest scores of the 20th century. I would say that in their case the ballet-goer doesn’t get the full musical experience of the concert audience.

    Comment by nimitta — January 19, 2016 at 10:15 am

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