A fine French program at the Boston Symphony on Wednesday night was rescheduled from February 9, when the concert was snowed out, and the result was a hall less than half full. But it was very rewarding to that diminished throng. This was also my first view of Alain Altinoglu, whom I had known as the conductor of the excellent first-ever recording of Édouard Lalo’s first opera, Fiesque, which was never produced anywhere until just a few years ago.
A perennial favorite, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture led off; the printed notes recountred BSO performances as early as 1883, and Koussevitzky conducted it more than 50 times. This outing found it clean, precise, and vivid, although several times it was also too loud in the brass department, which I attribute to Altinoglu’s highly choreographic conducting style — he was all over the place beating, cueing, gesturing, and swinging, almost jumping, seemingly demanding more at every moment. Yet apart from the cavorting, everything in his conducting was admirably precise, from the beat pattern to the registering. One didn’t have to actually watch his antics on the podium to respect the confident sound of his results. This also means that the world-class Boston Symphony players knew the music backward and forward, and took what they needed from the conductor; but Altinoglu’s gyrational style would not have been readily comprehended a second-tier orchestra.
Le Carnaval Romain (1844), an extract from the failed opera Benvenuto Cellini of 1838, mature and virtuosic Berlioz, seemed like a warmup for the overture to Béatrice et Bénédict (his last work, 1862), with the same kind of chopped-up, multi-sectional sprawling form, with really amazing orchestral brilliance. There were some golden moments. Robert Sheena, one of the best English horn players anywhere, gave us a fine solo in the Andante introduction, in C major; the long melody repeats in E major, and again climactically in A major, in canon between upper and lower woodwinds and strings, with a honky-tonk brass and percussion accompaniment that no other composer could have got away with without provoking laughter. After the introduction, the Allegro vivace begins with a main theme pianissimo in muted strings — subtle, daring, even exquisite, and a perfect setup for the sudden explosive ff that follows.
Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, op. 21 (1874), is hardly a symphony; it’s a violin concerto in five movements, written for and in admiration of Pablo de Sarasate, and one can hear in it regular echoes of notable works not yet written: Sarasate’s own Zigeunerweisen (1878) and Saint-Saëns’s Havanaise (1888). This most popular of all of Lalo’s works is a bright illustration of the Spanish infatuation that penetrated much French music of the time, including especially Bizet’s Carmen (1875) and Chabrier’s España (1883), and these in turn heralded Debussy’s and Ravel’s Spanish music of a generation later. This performance featured Renaud Capuçon, 41-year-old French violinist, and his execution was brilliant and commanding. Most of the listeners might have wished for a rendition that wasn’t quite so hurried, especially in the first and last movements, where one wanted enough breadth of tempo, and even rubato, that would have allowed more time for expression; the fingerwork was expert in the fast passages, but one wanted to hear it more clearly, simply because of its fleet virtuosity between high registers and low. A transparent and crisp take withal. Lalo, who is now almost entirely forgotten, deserves revival; the BSO needs to revive the ballet suites from Namouna, not heard here since 1928 (and currently enjoying a ballet performance in New York).
Henri Dutilleux, who died at age 97 in 2013, long enjoyed a partnership with the BSO, thanks first of all to Charles Munch, who commissioned Dutilleux’s Second Symphony, subtitled “Le Double” because of the chamber orchestra that is situated in front of the main ensemble. I was present for the premiere performance of this thrilling work in 1959, and for the second performance next year at Tanglewood. (Both times the harpsichord was played by my teacher, Luise Vosgerchian.) It was gratifying to hear last night how well this rarely-heard and completely modern symphony has stood up over the decades. In three movements, with textures ranging from gentle to massive, from solo string quartet to huge tutti, this symphony projects authoritative musical coherence, regulated especially by a small cohort of melodic motives, and motivic harmony. Some particular chordal sonorities recur — one of these seemed recognizably inspired by Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a work dedicated to Debussy’s memory, and we remember that Dutilleux, two years old when Debussy died, inherited some of his mantle. The opening Animato, ma misterioso was made mysterious by a recurring clarinet ripple; it returned from time to time as a signal between great orchestral outbursts in fast triple meter. The Andantino sostenuto slow movement is marked by long-sustained pitches that diffuse throughout broad expanses of changing texture, eventually yielding to a three-note motive that marks the ending of the slow movement and the beginning of the Allegro fuocoso finale. This was a fast 2/4, and fiery enough, but led to a Calmato episode in slow triple meter at the end, with a repeated upper melody and a regularly climbing bass, all the while bringing back the widely-spaced motivic chord that haunted the entire texture. The work does not disclose all of its complexities on first hearing, but it is already a memorably impressive work, and the orchestra obviously appreciated its own fine task.
The second suite from Albert Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane (1930) wrapped things up. This favorite of Charles Munch still glows with orchestral radiance. Roussel has always been an enigmatic original who doesn’t quite fit the French-Impressionist mold; his harmonic sense is sui generis and seemingly somewhat disorderly, influenced a little by Ravel on the one hand and Stravinsky on the other; but his orchestral sense is infallible. The Greek ballet (choreography by Serge Lifar, one of the Diaghilev descendants) is no mere Daphnis et Chloé imitation, at least not the music. There are wonderful timbres and rhythms throughout. The sleepy muted-string beginning, a D major triad penetrated by an F-natural oboe note, yields to a lovely high-register solo viola, admirably projected by Steven Ansell, and answered by Malcolm Lowe’s solo violin. Ariadne wakes up and becomes more energetic, and a fast 6/8 dance is soon decorated with dazzling flute-piccolo sextuplets. There’s a kiss motive; then an erotic sea with surging waves; and finally a vigorous, marchlike bacchanale in which I thought I could distinguish a pattern of ten beats (3 + 3 + 2 + 2). There’s one moment here when the whole horn section proceeds up a chromatic scale in augmented triads, like a house afire; trumpets double it on the repetition.
In this expertly-produced French program in the durable BSO tradition, the only vaguely Germanic “heavy” was the Lalo, already a lot lighter and more interesting than, say, Max Bruch. The eveninig paid homage to the Second Empire, the belle époque, and the antidodecaphonic heritage, from start to finish.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.