Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Who to Direct the BSO? And Reviews of Recent Concerts: Alan Gilbert Conducts Dutilleux, Stravinsky, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Daniele Gatti conducts Verdi’s Requiem and Paul Lewis in Recital at Jordan Hall Plays Schubert’s Last Three Sonatas

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Henri Dutilleux in 1993. Photo © Ulf / Gamma
Henri Dutilleux in 1993. Photo © Ulf / Gamma 

January 10, 2013:
Henri Dutilleux – Métaboles for Orchestra
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto
Julian Rachlin – violin
Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
Maurice Ravel – La Valse
Alan Gilbert – conductor
Boston Symphony Orchestra


January 12, Jordan Hall:
Schubert – Piano Sonatas, C Minor D. 958, A Major D. 959, and B flat Major D. 960
Paul Lewis – piano


Thursday, January 17:
Verdi – Requiem
Daniele Gatti – conductor
Fiorenza Cedolins – soprano
Ekaterina Gubanova – mezzo-soprano
Fabio Sartori – tenor
Carlo Colombara – bass
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor
Boston Symphony Orchestra


The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up and running and sounding very good after its holiday time off. New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert opened the winter season with a concert series beginning January 10th. Best of all was the opening work, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles of 1965, a piece in five movements played without pause for large orchestra, with much brass and percussion, harp and celesta. The piece is listenable and attractive, rich and serious, and full of musical wit. It asks and rewards an audience’s focus and concentration, which came about well on this occasion. The presentation made a case for what has often occurred to me, that challenging or relatively new work often goes over best when placed first on a program — people tend to be fresh and attentive and open. Métaboles proceeds by constant change and transformation of basic material, and one finds oneself every few minutes, taken unawares, as it were, in quite new territory — a new realm of orchestral color, of breadth of phrase, of rhythm — all of which has grown seamlessly out of what proceeded. The music sounds at moments like Messiaen or Stravinsky, but moves with the mercurial quality of Elliott Carter, or Mozart. Gilbert and the orchestra put the work across with freshness and commitment.

Next came the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a bit incongruous in the context of this otherwise 20th century program. Ailing soloist Lisa Batiashvili was replaced by Julian Rachlin, who plays with a beautiful tone and decisive phrasing. He and Gilbert started out with an interesting subdued, chamber-music-like approach to the piece, but after a time this did not work. The Tchaikovsky just is heroic, flamboyant, and highly emotional, and this performance did not achieve the size, intensity, and sense of line necessary to carry it off.

The second part of the program brought Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, written in Hollywood in the 1940s and showing some kinship with Hollywood film music of the angst-laden sort (Miklós Rósza etc.). Then, to conclude, Ravel’s La Valse. Both these were a pleasure to hear, Gilbert coordinating the large orchestral forces, navigating the complex rhythms, with great skill. The Stravinsky might have been spikier, and the Ravel more forthright with its disturbing undercurrents. Gilbert is a masterful conductor, but did not go the full distance with the character of these pieces.

Giuseppe Verdi in 1872.
Giuseppe Verdi in 1872.

The next set of BSO concerts, beginning January 17th, featured Daniele Gatti leading a full blooded, carefully prepared account of the Verdi Requiem. 2013 is the bicentennial of Verdi’s birth, as it is of Wagner’s — Gatti will return later this season to lead an all Wagner program, and on another occasion Mahler’s cosmic Third Symphony. In the nineteenth century, after great sacred music had left the church, so to speak, the Berlioz Requiem, with its deliquescing harmonies, incomplete phrases, and many weird sounds, is all about decay and dissolution. The Verdi gives us humanity crying out for protection or release in face of the world’s chaos and horrors — as is the case with the epic novel I Promessi Sposi by Manzoni, whose death the Requiem was written to commemorate; and as is the case with many Verdi operas, such as Il Trovatore or Don Carlo, the latter written shortly before the Requiem. The opening Requiem/Kyrie, with a hush into which solo voices intrude, sets the theme, fully developed in the long Dies Irae in many sections, which in places stirs up the full and overwhelming catastrophe of human experience, and in places the tender and frightened soul longing for peace, as in the beautiful tenor solo, Ingemisco, or the duet for soprano and mezzo, Recordare. The second half of the Requiem somewhat repeats the moods and sentiments of the first half (and in the final Libera me, some of the earlier music verbatim), and in this performance the sense of more-of-the-same was a little more than it should be. The fast, fugal Sanctus, an opportunity to develop a really new mood, was, at least on first night, not one hundred percent together, nor the words entirely clearly articulated. Generally the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by John Oliver, sang very expressively, with power and finesse as called for. The solo quartet was quite effective. The mezzo takes the lead in the piece until the Libera me, and Ekaterina Gubanova was a pleasure to listen to all the way through, with a rich attractive voice throughout the range. Soprano Fiorenza Cedolins sings better softly than loud, and higher rather than lower, but projected the Libera me very beautifully. Tenor Stuart Neill, substituting for ailing Fabio Sartori, and bass Carlo Colombara were fine. The group sounded, appropriately, like dramatic opera leads.

The BSO is, of course, searching for a new music director. Management has said it will announce an appointment later in the spring, and is keeping close about it, despite the fluttering of rumors. Everybody wonders about Gatti, who will visit the orchestra twice more this season. The greatest moments at BSO since James Levine’s departure have been (a) Myung-whun Chung’s intense rendering of the Tchaikovsky Pathétique Symphony in the fall a year ago (is he a candidate?); (b) Esa-Pekka Salonen’s concert of Ravel, Stravinsky, and his own music last spring (is he a candidate?); and (c) Vladimir Jurowski’s powerful account of the huge, chaotic Shostakovich Fourth Symphony last fall. On all these occasions the orchestra was really drawn beyond itself, and the musical works in question seemed to find a compelling realization beyond what one might imagine for them. Andris Nelsons, a rumored candidate, will appear with the orchestra soon. He debuted at Tanglewood last summer and, rumor has it, disgruntled the players a bit with his tendency to micromanage. He led the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and the Brahms Second Symphony with passion and commitment. The Stravinsky, especially in the first movement, Exaudi orationem meam, had a nice primitive, bleak “Russian” quality one is not used to hearing in the piece. The Brahms fell somewhat into intensely rendered fragments — Brahms-as-Mahler, one might say — missing the Apollonian detachment and architectural rigor that go with Brahms’s tenderness and strong feeling. The Finale was exciting and well-molded, though. After Levine, it would seem hard to avoid taking a step down with a new appointment for the BSO. Of the younger conductors Jurowski would represent an exciting new departure. If he is interested and wants to deal, the BSO should deal.

Perhaps among recent BSO high points one ought to mention Thomas Adès’s appearances with the orchestra last season and this. Last time he led music from his fascinating and highly original opera The Tempest, plus “tempest” music by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. In November the theme was “creation” music — Adès’s piano concerto “In Seven Days,” featuring excellent soloist Kirill Gerstein, who also played Prokoviev’s innovative, one-movement Piano Concerto No. 1; Sibelius’s creation story tone poem “Luonnotar,” with soprano Dawn Upshaw in splendid voice; and the latter composer’s experimental Sixth Symphony, very ably put across, if not so wonderful as the BSO performance some years ago under Paavo Berglund, who took the opening movement a little slower than Adès and found more emotional depth in the piece. Adès is a wonderful composer with a flourishing career in that realm, making many guest appearances as conductor and pianist. He seems unlikely as a candidate to take over directorship of an orchestra such as the BSO, with its very full concert schedule, many duties for the director, and the need to address a wide range of repertoire. It would certainly be a boon to have Adès return here every year with one of his special, well-conceived programs.

The most exciting solo appearance with BSO in recent memory was that of Daniil Trifonov last November, playing the demanding Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in B-Flat Minor, Giancarlo Guerrero conducting. Trifonov played with great command of the keyboard, an amazing beautiful tone with many layers and colors, and, most important, a full grasp of and belief in the many moods and passions of this piece, its lyricism, its storms, its longings. Not such a success as this was Trifonov’s solo recital at the Longy School of Music earlier in the fall — much beautiful playing, but Scriabin, Chopin, and Debussy sounded too much alike — there was not the inwardness with and belief in each piece that Trifonov brought to the Tchaikovsky in all its parts.

A very remarkable recital was English pianist Paul Lewis’s at Jordan Hall January 12th, giving us Schubert’s final three piano sonatas, the C Minor, A Major, and B flat Major (D. 958, 959, and 960). This daunting program from an artist of an aura more serious than flashy played to a sold-out and highly appreciative house, which ought to pose some kind of a lesson for concert planners and managers. Like everyone there, I was grateful for this evening and felt transported, especially with the great B flat Major Sonata that concluded the program, where Lewis gave his all. But I was not completely convinced, feeling for a time a certain emotional restraint or holding back on Lewis’s part. The C Minor opening movement is blustery, and it seemed more that way than it needed to be, Lewis not quite believing — that word again — in the material (i.e., being blustery was a way of holding back from what the music might be). He played the Adagio very beautifully, and for the most part played better slow and quiet than fast and loud. Also with the A Major, the opening did not quite take hold, and the Scherzo seemed too light. But Lewis came more into his own with the wild Andantino — which sounds like true post-Beethoven-Opus-111 music — and with the wonderful finale, which seems to want not to end, not to let go of life, singing a lied, being distracted, singing again, and again. Lewis tends to play strictly in tempo, and this combined with the not taking of repeats gives a sense of rushing things. With these pieces one needs to slow down and speed up at times, give each part its own character, let the changes of key and mood and material come across as the life-or-death risks and leaps into new territory that Schubert meant them to be. I wanted to say, forget the C Minor — just give us the A Major with repeats and taking your time, and going all out, then move on. The B flat Major, as said, worked really well. Here Lewis’s talents with clarity and voicing, his sense of line, and a tender care for each note shown forth glowingly.

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