Spooky Berlioz caps Dutoit’s busy week to close BSO season

April 26, 2014 at 12:13 am

By David Wright

Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” was performed Friday afternoon by Charles Dutoit and the BSO in its final week of the season.

The Asia-bound Boston Symphony Orchestra continued on its speedy way under Charles Dutoit Friday afternoon, playing the back end of a programming doubleheader that saw Tuesday night’s Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky works replaced by music of Glinka and Berlioz, while Tashkent-born pianist Behzod Abduraimov repeated Tuesday’s triumph in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

This unusual week of one-and-two-thirds programs is presumably intended to polish up repertoire for the orchestra’s imminent visits to China and Japan. (Dutoit has been substituting on short notice for the injured Lorin Maazel, and will conduct on the tour as well.)

That strategy appeared to be working for the Rachmaninoff performance, which in its third outing at Symphony Hall had gained noticeably in spontaneity and flow from Tuesday’s already high level.

Tuesday’s performances were marked by alert, savvy playing at unusually fast tempos, and that trend continued Friday afternoon in the brilliant opener, Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla. This brief, jolly piece, whose Boston performance history seems to involve as much Pops as BSO, got the virtuoso treatment from fleet-fingered strings and wind soloists, and some nice shaping of its lyrical second theme despite the blistering pace.

Dutoit closed this thrill ride with a gesture of Gallic insouciance, giving the final cutoff even as he stepped off the podium to shake hands with associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova.

Playing the Rachmaninoff, the 25-year-old pianist Abduraimov appeared more relaxed than in his BSO debut Tuesday. His shapely phrases bloomed still more lushly, especially in the ultra-romantic 18th Variation. In the fast variations, interplay between soloist and orchestra crackled. This vivid performance sounded ready for the road.

Conceived just months after the death of Beethoven, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique sounds like music from another century, or another planet. It has been called an orchestral showpiece, but only an orchestra willing to sound ugly will discover its true nature.

Dutoit asked for ugliness from the orchestra and got it: with shrieking strings and winds, dire thumps from the percussion, and cruel thrusts of brass, the March to the Scaffold became a festival of death.

The other movements were strongly characterized as well: the obsession with the beloved in the first, the second’s joyless ball scene, the desolation and loneliness of the Scene in the Country, and following the march, the desperate revelry of the Witches’ Sabbath—all were rendered by Dutoit in Berlioz’s primary colors, not so much blended as hurled together.

It was a dark note to end a symphony season on, especially this hopeful “advent” season anticipating a new music director. But, as the audience acknowledged with its enthusiastic applause, it was also a triumph, in which the players went far out of their comfort zone to bring back what is still, 180 years after it was composed, one of the strangest works in the orchestral repertoire.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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