This weekend the Boston Symphony Orchestra welcomes back to the podium Ludovic Morlot, replacing the medically incapacitated conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Also returning, also in glory, is cellist Johannes Moser. If you were not at last night’s concert, snap up any remaining ticket to hear this program of Smetana, Martinů, and Dvorak.
The program opened with Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau) from Má Vlast, his symphonic poem paying homage to the river running through the north of Prague. The orchestra was immediately responsive to Morlot, who offered a thoughtful and spirited take, giving it a zest for life in this airing, which commences like a stream bubbling forth from its source, acquiring depth on its determined path. The music possessed an air of freshness, though the piece is (overly?) familiar now and Morlot led the Boston Symphony Orchestra into an insightful reading of it; even the pastoral middle section was endowed with a sense of restrained power. Precise rhythmic punctuation, like fixed rocks interrupting water’s course, lent weight to this music.
The sixth symphony of Bohuslav Martinů, Fantaisies symphoniques, rounded out the first half. Dedicated to Charles Munch and the BSO on the latter’s 75th anniversary, it received a world premiere at Symphony Hall in 1955. Unfortunately, this fascinating work has not remained a constant fixture in the orchestra’s repertoire, and was last heard in 2001. In three movements, this symphony spans multiple oscillations between Lento and Allegro. The first movement opens with the energy of swarming bees. The sound is ominous, less a fantaisie in spirit than a cauchemar. This sonic nightmare could score a film following survivors in a post-apocalyptic thriller. This dark busyness strongly marks the contrast with passages of tender sweetness. The movement ends with massive chords. The second movement scherzo opens with the return of the swarm—stronger, bigger, angrier. A lively hocket with shades of Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky remains discernible in the background. In the middle of the symphony a love story offers harmonious and lyrical respite but there is no return to the gilded past for Martinů, nor for his listeners. A Moravian chorale gives way to a whirling dervish captured in musical notes at movement’s end. The third movement opens with a lush theme possessing the warmth of a tropical landscape, tainting the love with illicit passion ere the swarming dissonances return to the fore. A lugubrious coda makes of this symphony almost a plea for the fantasy voiced herein never to be realized. Bleak and disjointed (yet, on a deeper and ineffable level, wholly connected) music may portray a dystopic world; this performance brought that vision to palpable life and made the ending statement opposing the reality just heard all the more impressive.
Following intermission, we returned to the landscape of Bohemia and another cornerstone of today’s concert halls and of the repertoire of cellists: Dvořák’s Cello Concert in B Minor, op. 104 with Johannes Moser as soloist. First heard with the BSO last January in Saint-Saëns’s first cello concerto [reviewed here], his return to the stage of Symphony Hall, even if in the ubiquitous Dvořák evokes my gratitutde. Moser gave a memorable performance of this romantic showstopper and renewed my earlier love for it. From Moser’s initial entrance, a swooping, arm’s-length-circular placing of the bow on the A-string, drama was assured; the beauty was that the music never took a back seat to the visual effects. He emphasized the ways Dvořák’s writing stretched the then-perceived limits of the cello, and did so in a musically sensitive way, showing a fabulous technique harnessed to a keen musical mind. Throughout there was rhythmic precision, and the music was phrased so the lines had room to breathe. Impassioned and playful, Moser’s rendition encompassed a full palette of timbres and colors. His bowing was a compendium of articulations, smartly chosen. Moser employed rubato as judiciously as I have ever heard in this concerto. At times, these well-known phrases took a decidedly classical turn, offering new perspectives. Overall, the exuberance, testified to the confidence of a skilled musician in prime form having fun on the concert stage. For all that, Moser executed this virtuosic workout with the interplay of voices and lines which mark memorable chamber music; the orchestra engaged fully.