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“Imperfect Perfection” at Symphony Hall

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Alain Altinoglu leads (Robert Torres photo)
Ortganist Thierry Escaich (Robert Torres photo)

Les français returned to Symphony Hall and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a kind of home-away-from-home. This time Alain Altinoglu and Thierry Escaich showcased the Hall’s Æolian-Skinner-Foley-Baker organ in works of Poulenc and Saint-Saëns, plus some Debussy from the regular BSO forces. Altinoglu conducted and organist Escaich played at the speed of insight in a seamless program Friday afternoon which found the BSO in full bloom.

With astonishing precision and profound empathy, Altinoglu’s conducting mirrored the Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy’s signature melding of the modernistic and coloristic flowed in wave after wave, in ongoing swells, all through a magnificently emotive Boston Symphony Orchestra.

No mention of the excerpts came from the opera in today’s booklet, the title appearing with “arranged by Alain Altinoglu” (in contrast to the Monteux 1957 performance, which provided such detail). No need, so all-in-one was this 22-minute reflection on the three-hour oeuvre from Debussy, musicien français. Altinoglu’s penetration of the aria-free, orchestra-centric writing, advanced this love story with moments of “hesitant tenderness” (words of Debussy) reaching the ecstatic that finally succumbed to the tragic. One could even imagine Altinoglu’s finely wrought arrangement in tandem with the BSO’s superbly artistic achievement as a perfect introduction for getting to know the entirety of this one-of-a-kind stagework.

Antinoglu ordained fluid shifts of orchestral vantage points as if announcing, “Balance be gone.” In one instance, a prominent English Horn displayed close-up as it were, signaling with a backcloth of nearly mute strings, and in another, a trumpet’s strong declaration quickly vanished amid a sea of instruments. Maeterlinck’s symbolistic play and the opera’s plot both had to take back seat to an idealistic amalgam of deeply intuited musical sensuousness that felt distinctly French.   

“Imperfect perfection that is mine,” as Poulenc once described his work. Bringing into existence the Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra, and Timpani, drove the composer to tears because of a good deal of rethinking and revision. From the very start, the opening fortissimo chords and toccata flourishes unmistakably of Baroque flavor electrified through the ministrations of Thierry Escaich. The French organist, composer, and improviser, as has been the long tradition of organists, implemented all these sides. Escaich chose to override emphasis on Poulenc’s musical references such as those to Bach, those allusions to Keystone Cops, and those self-effacing passages of the fingernail biting composer, himself. Rather, Escaish transfixed Poulenc with a Roman Catholic resolve, stirring up organistic mysticism suggestive of Duruflé and Tournemire that would have Nadia Boulanger, an organphile herself, thrilled.

Symphony Hall perfectly suited the edgy dynamism of Escaich’s drive toward a purity so thankfully illuminatingly all the while exploring a sizable range of stops. Near the Concerto’s end, quieted rumbling from a 32-foot rank underpinned the ne plus ultra. Timpanist Daniel Bauch, Alain Altinoglu, and the BSO strings kept in lock-step. 

It seemed preordained for Debussy, Poulenc and the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3, Organ Symphony to share a program. For one thing, the Debussy suite had no aria type melodies, the Poulenc concerto had little virtuosic demands, and the so-called Organ Symphony generally employed the instrument as a member of the orchestra. For another, the afternoon grew ever bigger, fuller. The timpani and organ surprised in the forefront just before the final massive major chord, delivered tutti and fortissimo. About the Saint-Saëns Concerto annotator Hugh Macdonald wrote, “the earlier pages suggest a more questioning and searching character.” And he quoted the composer who doubted the lasting power of his work: “I have given it all that I had to give. What I have done I shall never do again.”   

From a darkly hushed image of a Medieval castle image that began Friday afternoon’s concert to a brightly lit majestic pronouncement that closed it, may les français at Symphony Hall and the Boston Symphony long resound.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).  www.notescape.net

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

  1. Kyle Brightwell’same was listed as timpani soloist – Dan Bausch actually played in the Poulenc. Written program flub?

    Comment by Stephanie — January 12, 2020 at 7:27 pm

  2. Friday afternoon’s concert brought forward two pieces of French music that have resonated in the very DNA of the Boston Symphony,harking back to BSO Music Directors, Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch, with the performances of the Poulenc Concerto and the Saint-Saens Symphony. The 1959 RCA “Living Stereo” Munch recording of the Saint-Saens ‘Organ’ ‘Symphony has long been a audiophile staple, that even today, can still be listened to as a landmark reference analog recording. The BSO should consider bringing back Altinoglu next season, programming works that were a part of the BSO legacy repertoire under Munch.( Debussy ” Martyrdom of St. Sebastian”/ complete – D’Indy “Symphony On A French Mountain Air ” – Roussel Symphonies, etc. ) This exciting young French music conductor and the Boston Symphony are a perfect pairing. Finally, is there anything more sonically thrilling than hearing the full sonority of the BSO with the Symphony Hall organ ?, especially with a fantastic virtuoso on the instrument like Thierry Escaich !

    Comment by Ron Barnell — January 13, 2020 at 4:04 pm

  3. Over 60 years ago, when I was a medical student in Boston I had Saturday evening tickets for all 24 BSO concerts – the only way subscriptions were sold in those times.  When there were no classes on Friday afternoons I often bought a “rush” ticket and sold my Saturday tickets. On Dec. 26, 1958 there were, of course no classes and I attended the concert that Friday afternoon and heard for the first time Saint Saens 3rd symphony. It was such an overwhelming experience that I returned Sat. evening for a repeat performance, the only time in my 4 years in Boston I did that. The organist was the famous E Power Biggs. When I returned Saturday evening I stopped at the RxAll drug store that then was directly across Huntington Avenue from Symphony Hall. Sitting  at the counter (drug stores had soda fountains back then) was E. Power Biggs, having a cup of coffee by himself. I sat down next to him and, somewhat in shock, had a very pleasant conversation with him.  Those live performances, as were many of Charles Munch’s, characterized, like one’s first love, by passion rather than precision. That approach to this particular music made sense to me then and even now. My impression is not just a recollection burnished and exaggerated over a long lifetime of recall. I have a recording made by a friend of that live WGBH radio broadcast. An RCA commercial recording of this piece made by Munch and the BSO, with a different organist, presumably at about that time, is renowned for its’ deservedly excellent sound quality and interpretation. (Biggs was under contract to Columbia and could not record for RCA.) Precision triumphs in that recording, though passion is evident. To me that performance lacks the edge of urgency, Perhaps I would be more satisfied by that recording and a number of subsequent performances had I not been physically present that weekend in 1958. Though over the years I have enjoyed and been excited about multiple performances of this work in Symphony Hall and elsewhere, none has quite equaled that first love.  I was enthusiastic to attend the recent wonderful BSO performances. Like 60 years ago, I heard it both Friday and Saturday, this time with friends and family, who I thought might be seduced by a first encounter of this piece, as was I. Deep appreciation, attention to detail and sophistication are ultimately more satisfying but may not replace the memory of that initial rush of emotion generated by a first love. Such is life, love and music.  

    Comment by Herbert Rakatansky, MD — January 25, 2020 at 12:01 pm

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