A new concerto for cello by French composer/organist Thierry Escaich, Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, and Rachmaninoff’s rich, melancholic, and ultimately triumphant Symphony No. 2 made for a bracingly varied concert at Symphony Hall last night. Music Director Andris Nelsons was at the helm, sculpting every twist and turn with clarity and wonderful flexibility.
Gautier Capuçon, a French cellist of intellect, extraordinary technique and opulent tone, played the U.S. premiere of Escaich’s Les Chants de l’aube, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra with panache and passion, charting its every challenge with seemingly effortless elan. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra had premiered this joint commission with the BSO in March with the same protagonists, so Nelsons and Capuçon brought a well-established simpatico realization to Boston
Escaich came on-stage with brief descriptions of what was about to be offered: the first movement, he said, might depict the individual colors of stained-glass windows, which then evolve into a mixture of those colors. The second would display music of an African bent, Gregorian modality, and jazz sonorities and rhythm. Finally, movement three would offer a dialogue between a representation of the transparency of dawn, followed by a dance with an explosion of colors depicting a battle between darkness and light.
This explanation would prove to be an accurate guide. This new concerto engaged and fascinated from beginning to end. As one might imagine from the composer’s descriptions above, it conveys ever-changing textures and colors. The first movement “Des Rayons et des Ombres” (Of rays and shadows) opened with great atmosphere as the soloist and orchestra strings batted rapid pianissimo swirling figures back and forth between them. This “trading-off” of music between soloist and orchestra would prove to be a recurring element. Capuçon kept busy throughout, and at the movement’s end he embarked on a lengthy cadenza spiked with many a left-hand pizzicato.
This led to the Concerto’s variegated second movement subtitled “Le Rivage des chants” (Riverbank of Songs) with its North African tang colored with several percussion instruments — crotales, vibraphone, and marimba – the latter expertly essayed by mallet-maestro J. William Hudgins. Throughout, Capuçon again dominated the proceedings with vibrant and atmospheric commentary, his utter mastery of this Escaich’s many challenges very evident.
Another demanding cadenza ensued, which Escaich writes “…leads the piece into an unreal, transparent moment, like a sunrise where time seems stopped.” The third movement “Danse de l’aube” (Dawn Dance) begins serenely with a long and languid melody intoned by the solo cello, but that is soon interrupted by “..a ritual and obstinate dance” which grows in intensity and rhythm as it courses its route to the Concerto’s brilliant final pages which culminate in a blaze of color and rhythmic force, to which, when achieved, both audience and orchestra reacted with audible and enthusiastic acclaim.
Composer, soloist, and conductor seemed very happy with the outcome, and much smiling and embracing of each other took place during the lengthy ovation. The BSO cello section seemed warmly to admire Capuçon achievements, with much bow tapping and waving. And truly, I would gladly hear this top-tier cellist again in any repertoire. And having said that, this particular concerto deserves a wide hearing, as it offers virtuosity, great color, and pleasingly varied texture throughout, never once dull or boring in its span. Kudos are due to all — this was a splendid premiere.
Nelsons had opened the evening with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, a brilliant orchestral transcription from 1918 of a movement from his 1905 Miroirs for solo piano. Stephen Ledbetter’s entertaining and informative program note suggests that the title might indicate a morning song of a buffoon/jester/clown, and while that may indeed be so, there is no clowning with the considerable demands Ravel places upon the orchestra, with fiendishly rapid triple-tonguing in the horns and trumpets and beguiling rubato required in the slower moments of this highly colorful score. While Nelsons had clearly mastered the task of indicating all of the nuances to his charges, there was a bit of unsettled ensemble evident at times that will likely evaporate into perfection by Saturday’s performance. Quick suggestion: for another “take” on this Ravel, I’d recommend a listen to Fritz Reiner’s superb reading with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — a performance of supreme virtuosity overlaid with telling Iberian atmosphere.
After intermission, Nelsons and the BSO embarked upon a voyage through Rachmaninoff’s monumental Symphony No. 2, offered in these concerts thankfully uncut. While I can appreciate why certain conductors feel this symphony needs trimming, Rachmaninoff was not happy when others curtailed his efforts. Harlow Robinson wrote about how the composer “…made clear (to his friend, conductor Eugene Ormandy) how strongly he objected to any tampering with what many consider his greatest symphonic masterpiece. ‘You don’t know what cuts do to me,’ he said. ‘It is like cutting a piece out of my heart.’”
This was an extraordinary performance from many perspectives, especially Nelson’s many intriguing and convincing interpretive decisions. Not once did this performance stray into “purple” manipulations of color and volume. Nelsons’s guidance revealed many treasures without extremes of volume and excessive rubato. Almost every interpretive device completely convinced me, especially when Nelsons held back where others might have plunged forward. He superbly marshalled each long-arching crescendo , allowing a topping out of sound that made more impact because of its carefully planned ascent. Delicious, too, was Nelson’s shaping of phrases. He exhibited thrilling control of these throughout, demonstrating each with very precise yet minimal indications. My in-concert notes recall how Nelsons again and again subtly shaped this symphony’s sinuous and sumptuously melodic musical lines.
Of course, hearing the BSO in Symphony Hall play this rhapsodic score is in itself a real privilege. I’ve remarked before that there is really nothing equal to hearing the BSO strings blending together with such unity of purpose and rich sonority. Add to this the current superb state of the orchestra’s woodwinds, and the magisterial sound of the orchestra’s brass, plus the impact of its percussion, and the result is a sound in which one can be completely immersed and mesmerized. All of this excellence offered in realizing Rachmaninoff’s many demands resulted in a very special hour of finely balanced and richly rewarding music. Special notice should be given to Robert Sheena’s always-mindful, musical and elegance on the English Horn, Principal Bassonist Richard Svoboda’s many solo and ensemble contributions, Principal Clarinet William R. Hudgins’s remarkable and meltingly beautiful solos, extraordinarily sensitive and characterful tuba underpinning from Mike Roylance, the entire 11-member cello section, Concertmaster Alexander Velinzon’s solos and artful leading of the violins…well, one could go on and on.
So, in sum, a gratifying and memorable evening from Andris Nelsons, cellist Andre Capuçon, composers Escaich and Rachmaninoff, and the BSO in toto, all in top form. I’d make a point of attending.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 40 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 47 years.