What’s in a name? Having composed an overture in 1844 while staying in a ruined tower outside Nice, Hector Berlioz did the logical thing and called his new work La tour de Nice. Was it program music? Not exactly. When Berlioz revised the work for a London performance in 1851, he retitled it Le corsaire rouge, after James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover. Yes, there is a cliffside tower in The Red Rover. But Le corsaire rouge didn’t stick either — Berlioz seemed to think it was misleading — so he finally settled on Le corsaire. Which, of course, prompted everyone to think he had in mind Byron’s poem The Corsair.
And perhaps he did. Byron’s 1814 bestseller was thought to have been based on the life of the French privateer Jean Lafitte. And nothing Berlioz ever wrote quite swashbuckles like the Corsaire Overture, which opens the program French guest conductor François-Xavier Roth is leading this weekend with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At least, it swashbuckles till the closing pages, when the cancan girls arrive and the conductor might as well discard his baton and grab a pair of pompons.
Roth doesn’t actually use a baton. He is, however, deploying the BSO’s first and second violins antiphonally—the seating Berlioz would have expected—and at Friday afternoon’s performance, that enabled him to bring out the tartness of the composer’s inner-string writing. He took the introductory adagio quite slowly, better to contrast with the scurrying allegro main theme; the tempo was never so fast that textures clotted (a Berlioz no-no), and when the trumpets and trombones made their big entrance at the three-minute mark, there was a burst of solarity. Everything about this Corsaire was bright and clear, but it could have been cheekier and strutted a bit more ostentatiously at the end.
The program’s centerpiece was the world premiere of German composer Matthias Pintscher’s cello concerto un despertar, which was commissioned by the BSO and the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and is dedicated to and written for American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Pintscher drew his title — which means “An Awakening” — from a poem of the same name by Mexican Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz. The poem describes what a man sees, and feels, after waking at 4 in the morning; Pintscher has explained, “How this old man stands at the window and looks out into his snow-covered life, in the silence of the fine snow, analyzing his whole life, that’s an emotional state which inspired me, a state of awakening and self-knowledge.”
Robert Kirzinger’s program note suggests that it’s simply the poem’s mood that Pintscher is trying to convey, but I think the actual text helps clarify this 25-minute work, which is in one movement, if you can use that word about music that barely moves. The afternoon opened with percussion whispers and what might have been a bell tolling the hour. Weilerstein then entered with gruff murmurs and mutterings, as if she’d been roused from sleep. “The room was my room,” Paz writes, “and my ghost was in each thing. I wasn’t there.” The orchestra, its percussion prominent, was ghostly and yet very much there; Weilerstein’s cello was half-awake and yet intensely physical. You could hear in her playing “the insomnia of a lamp, the oak that talks to itself, the wind and its knives, the illegible writing of the constellations.” Her cello prowled and growled, mostly in its lower register, though there were some ethereal excursions, as if the soul were trying to escape its flesh. “My two eyes were souls grieving for the world” is how Paz puts it.
The crashing in the orchestra — again, mostly the percussion, which included large guiro, medium and large tam-tam, vibraslap, thunder sheet, and bongos — kept getting louder. Bells signaled dawn; there was an orchestral cacophony and then the cello soared almost inaudibly into the stratosphere as “The constellations were being erased.” The final five minutes of un despertar seemed to slither out of conscious awareness, but credit Weilerstein for making sense of a solo part that’s largely scraping and sliding. The piece is hypnotic; I hope the BSO can offer it again.
This bill concludes with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony; Friday’s reading was refreshing but not revelatory. Tempos were breezy and bracing, and Roth was careful not to let the strings overbalance the winds and brass. Sometimes too careful — there were the odd moments where the melodic line got lost. He shaped the music with exquisite dynamics; the nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (clarinet) all sang out robustly at the end of the “Scene at the Brook,” and in the “Cheerful Gathering of the Country Folk” he gave the bassoon’s comic three notes plenty of air. The “Thunderstorm” rattled (though not as hard as Richard Egarr’s last year with the Handel and Haydn Society); the closing “Shepherds’ Song” was reverent, ending on a big sigh of happy relief. I just wish this stroll through the country had paused to look around a bit more and take stock of nature’s bounty. This outing felt lacking in rapture and awe.
Repeats Saturday night only.