Ken-David Masur kicked off Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture with reasonably brisk tempo and let the orchestra carry on with bright lively sound, his conducting rather economical; ask once and the orchestra will understand you. His attention tends to be dedicated to phrasing of the themes that enter anew, such as the relaxed Lyudmila’s theme introduced by the cellos — and it makes it very interesting to listen. This is especially true if you have Glinka’s chest of melodic riches to work with. The official father of Russian music was also the most Italianate composer among his compatriots — and a little bit of brightness was what the doctor ordered for the Tanglewood lawn that barely had a chance to absorb a few hours of downpour. Gloom is never too far away, of course, if you are programming a Russian concert. The warhorse of the evening was Rachmaninoff’s op. 18, aka Rach 2.
Kirill Gerstein, whose contributions to the season already had been rich and diverse, possessed more than enough pianistic power to carry it through. There is however a significant challenge that most soloists in this concerto struggle to overcome. The great drama of the opening figure unleashes a tsunami of the orchestra which immediately drowns the piano part. A solution comes from rebalancing for the purpose of recording or broadcast, but that is hardly satisfying to listeners in the shed who can clearly see that the pianist is playing something very interesting, they just can’t hear it.
Incidentally, the pianist most effective when it comes to holding his own against the orchestra in the Moderato of Opus 18 happens to be Denis Matsuev, one of the cornerstones of Vladimir Putin’s musical establishment. In his many performances, the great leader, who with his fateful utterances from the keyboard unleashes the flood, remains firmly in charge throughout, even when just accompanying the orchestra’s theme. Maybe it is his accelerandi that help, or maybe it is back to rebalancing the sound for recording.
Whatever harmonies the orchestra drowned out in the tutti in the first run of the main theme, the piano took firm command, least by the time of recapitulation. Gerstein’s phrasing in the first movement rolled out impeccably, but his real moment to shine came in the Adagio, when his soulful introduction and accompaniment supported the flute-to-clarinet solo, gorgeously introduced by Elizabeth Ostling. Throughout the concerto, the attention to details from the podium was admirable. The initial appearance of the Orientalizing theme of the 3rd movement in the viola section was one such episode in the finale, but the whole movement was living and breathing, both in the piano part and in the orchestra, ending with the bright and high-spirited coda.
Stravinsky’s Firebird, which landed in the second half of the concert, is from its origin a programmatic piece, introducing not just stunning techniques in its orchestration, but also a healthy dose of pagan exoticism. The story that Diaghilev’s dancers originally delivered, and which the music reflects so craftily, is still faithfully reprinted in every program booklet; the very informative notes by Steven Ledbetter represented the top tier of that game. It seemed however more enjoyable to leave the notes behind and just follow this romp through the timbres of BSO, which firmly relegates Peter and the Wolf to kindergarten repertoire. The shimmering strings immensely uplifted, as did the solos by Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova. The menacing gestures of Bassoon, the Immortal, were quite witty, the xylophone rich and brilliant, and every group had a chance to enjoy the spotlight. This pure delight provided ample reward for having endured a couple of hours on the Mass Pike and relying on the overpriced hospitality of Lenox.
Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.