Gatti, French orchestra bring fresh insights to familiar music

January 25, 2016 at 1:19 pm

By David Wright

Daniele Gatti conducted the Orchestre National de France Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Daniele Gatti conducted the Orchestre National de France Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Music 101 got a makeover Sunday afternoon in Symphony Hall, as Daniele Gatti conducted the Orchestre National de France in a program of orchestral standards strikingly re-imagined.

Just about everybody has heard that Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune ushered in a new era of musical impressionism. Mozart invented the modern piano concerto, and to many listeners his Concerto in A major, K. 488, is the Mozart piano concerto.  And judging from its frequency on concert programs, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is still the Tchaikovsky symphony. 

In fact, any top-ten list of the most-performed orchestral works not by Beethoven would likely include some or all of these pieces. And yet here came this crowd of Frenchmen (and women, including five section principals and the co-concertmaster), presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, proposing that we listen to them all again. Quelle audace!

But ho-hum quickly turned to wow in the opening bars of Debussy’s Prélude, as the famously ambiguous flute solo apparently floated down from another planet, and shreds of horn tone coalesced around it. It seemed as though several minutes passed before this performance even began to sound like orchestral music as one usually thinks of it.

Eventually, however, strings soared, woodwinds and harp danced delicately, and the languid, be-here-now spirit of an afternoon prevailed. The tiniest of triangle strokes were all the punctuation this long poem needed before the vision faded away.

The things one learned in class about the Prélude—the unresolved dissonances, the loosening of tonal harmony—were evident in Sunday’s performance, and something else as well, a new way of conceiving orchestral music. One marveled again that these evanescent sounds were composed at a time when the burning question of the day was who was better, Brahms or Wagner.

It figured that the orchestra from a nation that can expound on the difference between the 1945 and the 1961 vintages of Château Latour would have a thing or two to say about the fine points of its greatest composer. But it also brought, with the aid of the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, a characteristic elegance and sang-froid to the music of an Austrian who had been, in his day, a flop in Paris: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The reasons Mozart failed to impress the Parisians when he visited there remain a matter of discussion, but one thing now seems clear: the centuries-old tradition of outstanding French woodwind players and Mozart’s superb writing for winds seem made for each other.

Opening Mozart’s concerto on Sunday, the French orchestra distinctly favored the winds, keeping the string sound soft and satiny while flutes and oboes gleamed in accompaniment.

Pianist Tharaud’s sound was d’accord with the orchestra, emphasizing the smooth and blithe over anything hard or accented.  Even in the first movement’s cadenza, written out by Mozart with plenty of bass octaves and fast scales, the pianist forebore from booming or roaring.

Listeners who liked their Mozart pearly had come to the right place. Sitting still and unflappable at the instrument, Tharaud spun out one pretty phrase or scale after another. If occasionally one wished for a strong cadence here and there to mark an arrival point, one still had to appreciate the subtlety of Tharaud’s approach.

The pianist brought a cool dignity to the second movement’s theme in somber C-sharp minor that somehow enhanced its pathos. The clarinet stole in discreetly with the more piercing second strain of the theme, and the strings seemed more to glow than to sing out when they took it up. The darkly meditative performance closed in a whisper of piano and pizzicato strings.

For maximum contrast, Tharaud opened the rondo finale at an exuberant tempo, which conductor Gatti adjusted downward when his turn came, the better to bring out woodwind details in the score. Eventually the two settled on a jaunty beat, the piano’s tone brightened in dialogue with the winds, and the fastidious pianist even allowed himself a marcato octave or two, as the music spun on to a cheerful finish.

Overall, it was a nuanced performance, not a showy one, and the audience’s response was appreciative, not overexcited.

For excitement, one turned to Tchaikovsky, and to conductor Gatti’s flair for the dramatic. Great drama requires great suspense, and Gatti supplied the latter in abundance, beginning with an uncommonly murky opening to the work, with a muffled-sounding solo clarinet mired deep in a rumble of low strings. From there, the music built slowly but inexorably to the first of many fortissimo climaxes, expertly timed by the maestro, with winds and brass powerfully supporting, but never covering, Tchaikovsky’s urgently striving strings.

On the podium, Gatti accomplished all this with minimal gestures, even dropping his arms at one point while the winds sorted out an intricate passage. He was more physically involved with the Andante cantabile second movement, further marked “con alcuna licenza” (with some freedom), shaping the music at a very slow tempo that tested the lung power of principal horn player Hervé Joulain in the famous opening solo. (M. Joulain passed, with honors.) Gatti’s “licenza” wrung every drop of drama from this passionate movement.

The composer didn’t indicate any “licenza” for the waltz tempo of the third movement, and Gatti perhaps took a little too much, but the middle section was a fizzy delight, with each section’s skittering figures in clear relief.

Although the excellent program note by Aaron Grad compared this symphony’s finale to the triumphant last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, conductor Gatti was too much the dramatist to give in to victory that easily. An air of anxiety and violence—epitomized by an almost barbaric pounding of timpani at the climaxes—lurked in this performance till very near the end, threatening to blow away any moments of major-key optimism, making the triumph of the strings’ taking over the menacing brass motto at the end all the sweeter.

The audience was quickly on its feet at the close, and no wonder. One master musical dramatist had met another, and suddenly a warhorse was ready for battle again.

The next classical (and world and rock) music presentation of the Celebrity Series of Boston will be Brooklyn Rider with Gabriel Kahane,8 p.m. Feb. 5 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

 

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