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BSO’s French Roots Show


Jacques Lacombe leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Hilary Scott photo)

This is a good Diaghilev year at the Boston Symphony, with the climax of the musical belle époque on display. On January 11th the orchestra gave us Stravinsky’s complete Firebird; in two weeks we will hear Debussy’s Jeux; and last night we had the complete Daphnis et Chloé of Ravel. The Daphnis et Chloé second Suite has always been a BSO favorite, with more than 200 performances since 1915; the complete ballet is less often heard, but there’s a recording conducted by Charles Munch that is still unsurpassed. I discussed the Boston University Orchestra’s excellent performance [HERE] in November 2008. Last night’s performance, conducted by Jacques Lacombe, reached the highest standards as well.

The concert began with two orchestrations by Ravel of piano works of Debussy, Sarabande and Danse. Debussy probably had Erik Satie’s Trois Sarabandes of 1887 in mind when he composed his Sarabande in 1894; its final version appeared in 1901 as the second piece in the suite Pour le piano; the original version, with some small but significant differences, finally saw publication in 1977 in a set of Images oubliées. This Sarabande reveals some of Debussy’s earliest experimentation with nontriadic harmony; more than that, it’s one of his earliest pieces that can be called genuinely Impressionist, and looks forward to his next sarabande, which he titled Hommage à Rameau. Ravel’s orchestration is likewise impressionistic, with lush divisi strings and stately chorale-like harmony in wind textures. Debussy’s Danse, originally called Tarantelle styrienne, is an earlier piece from 1890, showing some kinship with his two Arabesques. Ravel scored this piece more lightly, with harp accents and gossamer string sound, though the first horn, carrying the main melody, gets a good workout. (In the change of meter from 6/8 to 3/4 on the next-to-last page of the score, the quarter-note beat is supposed to be constant, but the conductor clearly made the 3/4 quarter equal to the 6/8 dotted quarter. Please take note.)

Ravel’s Concerto pour la main gauche followed, the most famous of all one-handed piano works. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who played in Bach’s D Minor Triple Concerto last week, was spirited in this assorted and sometimes gloomy utterance from Ravel’s last years. The music surges from low registers to high, from turbulent and muddy to crisp and jazzy, and over a full range of dynamics from cadenza to cadenza and from climax to climax. In the opening piano solo, the pedaling was a little blurred, but I now see that in the score Ravel’s pedal markings are ambiguous. Thibaudet’s Più lento before no. 9 was beautifully expressive. In the fast 6/8, the tutti was so loud that even the trumpets’ ff couldn’t be heard. A moment or two later, the sharp coordination between piano and orchestra got a little bit off, when one sensed that the pianist wanted a slightly more held-back tempo than the conductor was willing to give, but eventually they made a mutual adjustment. This part is said to be jazzy; it’s more bluesy, with E major and E minor simultaneously. [Thibaudet dedicated his encore, Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte,” to the children who perished in Wednesday’s Florida school shooting.]

The second Daphnis et Chloé suite is known to everybody, but the Introduction and Sacred Dance at the beginning include some of the ballet’s finest and most mysterious music; the 7/4 dance that follows, in two groups which are then contrapuntally combined, is no less remarkable, especially for the originality of the harmony and the overall tonal conception. Just as beautifully realized is the C-sharp major music, with paired clarinets, between Daphnis’s danse légère and Lyceion’s dance; likewise the nymphs’ gathering-together at the beginning of the First Suite (no. 70 in the score). I don’t know any other music by Ravel that’s like this. Ravel doubtless agreed to be guided by Fokine’s choreography, but it took him nearly five years. Some, but hardly all, of the critical literature regards Daphnis et Chloé as Ravel’s finest as well as his largest accomplishment. Orchestrally it is continuously amazing, and even at that the oversize apparatus doesn’t always succeed; I have yet to hear a performance of the Danse guerrière, for example, in which I could hear the harmony clearly through all that chordal velocity. (I can’t remember the exact quote from that old grouch, Henry Pleasants, in The Agony of Modern Music — you may also remember him as head of the CIA office in Switzerland and Germany — but it was something to the effect of Daphnis et Chloé being the last word in pre-World War One orgiastic orchestral writing.)

The great years of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes brought three of the greatest composers of their time together. What did they think of each other’s music? They were all good friends. According to Stravinsky, Ravel liked Firebird but Debussy was ambivalent about it; Firebird’s influence is apparent in the glittering orchestration of Ma Mère l’Oye and Daphnis et Chloé; Debussy regularly consulted Stravinsky about orchestration while he was composing Jeux in 1912; Debussy adored Petrushka (1911) but thought that in The Rite of Spring “Stravinsky is veering dangerously close to Schoenberg”; Stravinsky thought that Jeux was an orchestral marvel but that the music was “trop Lalique”; Ravel, Stravinsky said, was the only composer of his time who fully understood The Rite of Spring; Stravinsky liked Ravel’s Trois Poèmes de Mallarmé better than any other work of his; Debussy saw his own popularity, and some of his public, falling away in the wake of the two younger composers. My own opinion, which may be widely shared, is that we are incomparably enriched any and all of these works.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance was as radiant as it was precise. Everybody played wonderfully. Sometimes there were places where balance might be adjusted; with orchestral sound as large and rich as in these works, this is inevitable, and every repetition will be different. There were some superb instrumentalists: Elizabeth Rowe in the famous flute solo; Robert Sheena, peerless English horn; James Sommerville, French horn (all the horns were outstanding, in fact, even when muted); Tamara Smirnova, solo violin; and a special nod to the percussion, especially the crotales (six pairs). And congratulations to the large Tanglewood Chorus, James Burton, director. They sounded well — could even be louder in places — and made it through the dangerous a cappella passage just before the Danse guerrière in good style. (They sang a wordless A– syllable throughout, as specified in the score; the old Munch recording, with the NEC chorus, used Loo– .)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Hilary Scott photo)

I had not seen Jacques Lacombe’s conducting before. His caressing style in the Sarabande, in which every beat in the 3/4 measure seemed to be a scooping downbeat, rather like swimming, and his constant knee-bending was very irritating. In the works that followed, all this manneristic cheironomy gradually disappeared, and in Daphnis et Chloé it became completely controlled and precise. By that point, Lacombe’s direction was thoroughly impressive, the more so because of the abundance of eighth-note measures which require individual beats, especially when the tempi change so frequently and when there’s so much rubato. His expression was likewise very restrained, and his gesturing pointed and direct. The orchestra responded well to him even though they already know this music backwards and forwards. He didn’t dance and he didn’t jump, and sooner or later he could learn to restrain the flexure of his knees; that never adds to anything. I more than tip my hat to Lacombe and hope we will hear from him again; it would be very interesting to watch him conduct Mahler, for instance.

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.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a fine review of a superb bso effort.

    Thank you so much. ms

    Comment by morty schnee — February 18, 2018 at 11:39 am

  2. Don’t miss the second all-Ravel concert that the NEC piano department is presenting in Jordan Hall on Thursday night. The companion project to the BSO’s celebration of Ravel in America.

    Comment by raro2015 — February 22, 2018 at 12:48 pm

  3. Ravel calls for a choir of mixed voices and designates either pure pitches or “bouche fermée” (mouth closed = hum). Ravel does not specify any vowel sounds. Ralph Vaughan Williams, in Ravel-influenced works like his choral/viola concerto “Flos campi” is more detailed about how far open the mouth should be, but also avoids specifying particular phonemes or vowel sounds.

    The TFC has sung this work many times, and tends toward a moderately bright “ah” most of the time, using “oo” in a few quiet sections following humming.

    Diaghilev hated the choral part of this ballet and cut it from the 1914 revival at Drury Lane in London. Ravel wrote to the press to complain, and as a member of the chorus, I hear the choral part as crucial to the scenic element of the work: Daphnis and Chloe’s Greek island has many voices (human and natural), and the choral singing must be present to create a fully transformational sense of the ancient and ineffable.

    Comment by Laura Stanfield Prichard — February 23, 2018 at 1:02 pm

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