The Boston Symphony’s last subscription series of the season opened Thursday night with variety, including two vocal solos featuring Kristine Opolais, two century-old and one more recent French masterpiece.
The evening’s high point came in the opening Métaboles (1964) by Henri Dutilleux, honoring both the composer’s centenary and his long-standing association with Boston. I could hear this beautiful five-movement, 16-minute piece with pleasure again and again. Métaboles makes a radiant testimony to the harmonic vitality of French music in the post-World War II era without interference from the aggressive atonal insistence of the Boulezistes. It also reflects a century’s French preoccupation with symphonic cyclicism—each movement independently fixes and builds on harmonic or timbral material previously exposited. Much of the harmony depends on carefully-selected, widely-spaced sonorities that have at least some kind of hidden triadic basis. The most perceptible foci of the several-times-repeated opening chord in the first movement (Incantatoire), for instance, were the E—B-flat in the uppermost woodwinds and C in the resonant bass, forming part of a dominant-seventh chord, regardless of the entirely different pitches in between; and this same structure was heard again near the end of the last movement (Flamboyant). The second movement (Linéaire), for strings alone, allowed complex harmonies to develop within wide registers in a more uniform timbre, and I was reminded of some of the luminous polychordal harmony of Honegger’s Second Symphony and the brilliant Les Bandar-Log by Charles Koechlin (a work we need to hear in Boston)—a kind of sonority that is entirely distinctive and entirely French. The linearity of the movement resides in an undulating texture of converging and diverging melodic lines, rather like a barcarolle but not at all like the maritime motion of La mer, which we would hear after the intermission. The texture moves smoothly into the third movement, Obsessionel, beginning with a frantic pizzicato solo double bass, which Edwin Barker brought out with perfect clarity. This bouncy movement (scherzando) also displayed some closely-textured dominant sevenths that seemed perfectly natural in context, as though Dutilleux were experimenting at the piano with chords in one hand. In the fourth movement, Torpide, one was aware of the recurrent C in the bass and a penetrating E on the xylophone, with divided double basses playing in upper-register harmonics like those in Stravinsky’s Agon; I wanted to hear this scary tocsin more closely, but I was disturbed by the excessive amount of noise in the audience, who were apparently baffled by the unfamiliar sounds on stage. The final movement was a fine display of virtuosic writing everywhere in the orchestra, a well-regulated Presto mostly in 3/4 but giving the appearing of several simultaneous tempi. Andris Nelsons conducted with an admirable precision, and a baton technique that included careful accentuation as well as dynamic control; this was the first time I had been able to watch him closely. The audience reacted to the Dutilleux work politely but rather coolly, and this makes me feel that more performances are needed to show the way.
Kristine Opolais came on stage in a handsome dress of muted salmon-red (very different from the explosive vermilion of Christine Goerke in Elektra) to sing Russian music. She began with Zdes’ khorosho (It is nice here), Op. 21, No. 7, by Rachmaninoff, in an orchestration. This was an ineffably lovely song, but, at 22 bars, much too short in context—less than two minutes long — where there is orchestral accompaniment, one wants to hear more. Opolais’s fine expression perfectly suited the music, but at moments the string sound submerged her; this might be an easily adjustable problem. There was an amusing moment when she came on stage for a solo bow, and seemed to think that her husband should have been there as well, and so she went back to fetch him. All was settled a minute later when they reappeared for a much larger offering, the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Even though this scene is famous, it is difficult, after 135 years with Puccini and the moderns intervening, to recognize how subtly and appropriately operatic this music is. The woodwind melody forms a perfect inner dialogue with Tatiana’s thoughts; the syncopated wind accompaniment delicately reinforces her emotional unease. The D-flat major section, with its devastating augmented-sixth alternation, confirms her resolve. (One inescapably remembers the famous section in the same key, with augmented sixth chord, in Romeo and Juliet, from 18 years earlier.) Kristine Opolais got off to an agitated start, with too much vibrato, as though she were actually declaiming in the opera house, but soon settled down to some of the most finely-controlled expression and clear tone that I’ve heard in a long time, and she seemed perfectly at ease with the wide-ranging tempi, expertly managed by Nelsons. My one objection was that the solo horn in the D-flat dialogue was too loud. Would Tchaikovsky have asked for a natural horn in D-flat here? Possibly.
Nelsons gave us a rather relaxed La mer through most of its length. This is desirable especially in the first movement, “From dawn to noon on the sea,” where the harmony develops very subtly up to the first ff climax in the middle of the movement. The prominent melody at m. 122 calls for a unison of English horn and two solo cellos but is almost always, as last night, performed with just one cello. Nobody knows why this never-repeated melody is stuck in here, but it is always memorable. The last measures were mostly too loud; a true fff is demanded only on the final chord. The second movement, “Play of the waves,” has always been one of Debussy’s most complex and often puzzling symphonic conceptions, with so many different ideas all assorted in one multicolored tapestry of sound that frequently fails to make orchestral sense — and this is usually because conductors try to take the tempo too fast. (Debussy’s own metronome markings are sometimes inconsistent, which compounds the problem.) Nelsons shaped the overall sound very well, and the flexibility of his tempi made for a gratifying absence of rush; it was only when he changed his beat from 3 in the bar to 1 that the orchestra momentarily got tangled, pushing to the fff climax. My other complaints are that the harp glissandi were mostly too loud, and that the slowed-down ending of the movement is quite uncalled for in the score. In the final movement, “Dialogue of the wind and sea,” Debussy’s cyclic construction is confirmed, and it’s no wonder that he called La mer “Three symphonic sketches” without actually calling it a symphony. I’m quite sure that I heard the lower melody at m. 110 doubled by tuba, though the score doesn’t indicate it; and this was the first performance I’ve heard in many years in which the usually-suppressed fanfares at m. 237 are include—as they certainly should be. The Dflat major harp parts at m. 157 were perfectly audible and very welcome. The cornet solo at m. 129 was stark, even shattering—one of the finest moments in the whole work. I would quarrel with some of Nelsons’s tempi, including dragging-out of cadential passages, and excessive speed in the final measures. But in general this La mer was worthy of the best of the Monteux-Munch days. I will also remark that there’s a pretty interesting chapter on the first movement of La mer in my book, Debussy and the Veil of Tonality (Pendragon, 2004); but much more of value is to be had in Debussy: La mer, by Simon Trezise (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
From the evidence of the disconcerting lack of balance in the melodic parts, the closer, Ravel’s La valse seemed to have wanted for more rehearsal time. La valse usually suffers in performance for this reason, although I have heard conductors say that if Ravel’s dynamic indications are scrupulously observed there will probably be no problems. Stravinsky’s own admission about one section of his Firebird resonates with respect to La valse: “…an awkward orchestral handicap remains, though I cannot say exactly what it is,” and perhaps Ravel would even have agreed. In any case, La valse went by with some fine moments, but in general was too unbalanced and even raucous in the climaxes, and too rushed at the end. I have always thought that perhaps only a few adjustments are need in the full score to make the overall climactic sound much more convincing; but to determine what the optimal adjustments might be would be a major task for the future. (Orchestral composers, take note. Oh, yes, by the way, Ravel himself is supposed to have said, “La mer is poorly orchestrated. If I had the time, I would reorchestrate La mer.” Good luck.)