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.
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.