On Sunday afternoon an intrepid crowd skipped the Patriots’ loss in favor of a Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall. The Orchestre National de France (ONF) kicked off a North American tour under music director Daniele Gatti with a conservative-sounding program of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488, with soloist Alexandre Tharaud (see interview here), and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Gatti has been a frequent BSO guest, but this is the first time that he has come here at the head of the orchestra he has led for seven years.
Debussy wrote an orchestral Prélude inspired by Mallarmé’s landmark poem L’après-midi d’un faune (the BMInt review here) has more about both the music and the poem). Its flute solo represents the mind of a mythological faun, and Boston Symphony flutist Elizabeth Rowe has given it many distinguished performances. The twist in this performance was that principal Philippe Pierlot played a wood flute, lending a distinct earthiness to this staple of the repertoire. And Debussy’s languid dreamscape was captured exquisitely by the ONF and Gatti, even as they executed with rigor to evoke a sense of fluidity. Tempos ebbed and flowed with orchestra members in perfect synch, giving Gatti the ability to set phrases in motion, then back gently into cadences without losing flow. The orchestra played with a gorgeously hushed yet transparent sound, so that strings, winds, and harp could all be heard perfectly. Tuning was exact, making every dissonance all the more delicious. And orchestra members handed off musical motifs among sections seamlessly, with one striking interplay among concertmaster Luc Hery, principal clarinet Patrick Messina, and principal horn Hervé Joulain. As the faun returned to sleep, the orchestra pulled back to a barely audible conclusion that left the audience breathless.
A smaller ensemble returned to the stage with pianist Alexandre Tharaud for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. Gatti opened with slightly slower tempos than most conductors use but with the same orchestral qualities of transparency, balance, and restraint. Tharaud is known for wide-ranging musical interests and a mercurial style, but here his solos sounded oddly muted. I can’t quite put my finger on what bothered me; there was much to admire in his restrained playing, the lovely handling of the haunting opening to the slow movement, and the brisk give-and-take with various sections of the orchestra. And yet Mozart’s dense passagework sounded sometimes tentative and murky, and there were occasional synch problems with the orchestra. Tharaud played Mozart’s cadenzas, ornamented minimally with repeated material, and apart from an accented appoggiatura in the finale (imitated by the winds), it sounded like 10 or 15 performances of the concerto that I’ve heard before.
The orchestra returned in force after the intermission for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. This work showcased the ONF’s sound at its opulent best. Principal clarinet Patrick Messina presented the symphony’s opening “Fate” theme with the right mix of melancholy and foreboding. The string section accompanied with ravishing tone and musicianship. Held and sustained notes never felt static, and everything was played with shape, direction, and intent. Then the strings played the 6/8 Allegro con anima march of the first movement with rhythmic precision, marking the first and fourth beats and playing full durations without rushing or slurring, just as crisply and distinctly on the 25th repetition as the second one, and providing beautiful support for the wind soloists’ introduction of the principal theme. Gatti’s tempos ebbed and flowed, with a beautifully judged gradual acceleration to the ecstatic climax of the exposition. The ONF’s transparency of sound allowed you to hear the full contrapuntal density of the first-movement development, with string, wind, and brass motifs in a perfect balance that eludes most conductors. And that same transparency and fierce articulation made the strings’ march rhythm easier to appreciate in the first-movement coda.
The second movement opens with a simple chord progression, gradually shifting like a hymn from B minor to the relative D major. Gatti and the ONF strings turned these eight short measures into a moving microcosm of the whole symphony. Then principal horn Hervé Joulain played the movement’s famous main theme in soulful fashion. The orchestra’s sensitive tuning allowed you to appreciate every crunchy dissonance in Tchaikovsky’s score, in a way that is glossed over by lesser ensembles. Another carefully judged buildup of tension exploded in a reprise of the first movement Fate theme, followed by gorgeous pizzicato string chords. The recapitulation of the slow movement had more sonorous low string playing, full but without obscuring the ornaments added by the winds. I can’t decide if I’m more seduced by the slow-burn crescendos, gathering energy and momentum with exquisite anticipation, or enchanted with the way the orchestra backs off from climaxes, with brass sounding plenty powerful but maintaining a ringing tone as they scaled back to gorgeous hushed pianissimos.
The third movement Scherzo offered a nice contrast between the lilting strings and droll commentary from the winds. The fast-moving Trio figure was articulated crisply, and exchanged deftly among first violins, violas, and winds. And in the coda, the Fate theme sneaks in amidst the ebb and flow and syncopation of the other Scherzo material. The ONF showed their virtues again in the Finale, with broad dynamic range, the ability of sections to switch between melodic and accompaniment parts with chamber music intimacy, bracing harmonic pungency, and a thrilling acceleration and intensification to the blazing conclusion. In a last-minute addendum, the orchestra paid homage to former music director Kurt Masur, but in some ways these performances brought to mind the style of another recently deceased conductor: the exacting rhythms, the deft harmonies, the exquisite balances all make you think that this might have been how the Fifth Symphony would have sounded under the baton of Pierre Boulez—if Boulez were ever caught conducting Tchaikovsky.
Tharaud proceeds from Boston to Köln, to take part in a program of 21st-century music with the West German Radio Symphony. Gatti and the ONF presented the Debussy and Tchaikovsky sandwiching Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Julian Rachlin in Paris on January 20th; this program will be repeated before the end of the month in Ottawa, New York, Newark, Greenvale NY, and Washington DC.