Stunning Shostakovich Fifth headlines a night of contrasts from Denève, BSO

February 17, 2012 at 11:47 am

By David Wright

Stéphane Denève conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

In an orchestral concert, it’s always good to have a bit of contrast between the pieces.  For example, Thursday night’s program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra began with an evanescent piece evoking the dreams of children, and ended with a vision of totalitarianism on the march so terrifying that I won’t be able to get it out of my head for days.

It wasn’t just the choice of repertoire.  Yes, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite is intimate music, and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is big.  But it was also the imagination of conductor Stéphane Denève, making his on-purpose BSO debut (having made an accidental debut substituting for Sir Colin Davis last April), that made these two works sound not just starkly different, but worlds apart.

In the Ravel, Denève never let one forget that this music was originally written for two children to play on a piano, or that the composer arranged it for an orchestra without brass, horns apart.  Beginning at an almost imperceptible pianissimo, the conductor repeatedly let the music surge a little, only to pull it back, making the audience lean forward to hear Ravel’s subtle orchestral effects.

Of course, the Chinese gongs clanged delightfully in Laideronette, Princess of the Pagodas, and The Fairy Garden swelled to its gorgeous forte conclusion, but the overall impression of this performance was of modesty, simplicity, and fanciful dreams faintly remembered.

On the other hand, Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds was a bright, shiny object, combining the old (motoric Baroque toccatas) with the new (big-band jazz).  Playing with infectious vigor and crisp articulation, soloist Peter Serkin seemed like a pianist who never met a syncopated sforzando he didn’t like, or a legato that he did.  And yet he found an attractive tune here and there, and an impressive variety of tone colors on Stravinsky’s steely palette.

Denève and the jazz-configured orchestra—woodwinds, brass, and string basses– seemed to feed off Serkin’s energy.  In the central Largo, they brought out moments of Beethoven-like fervor and Mussorgsky-like fantasy, but the lasting memory of this performance will be of pianist and band lifting listeners out of their seats with Stravinsky’s potent rhythms.

Although nobody can agree on what it means, everybody agrees that Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is a hell of a piece.  Composed in the Soviet Union in 1937, when Stalin’s purges of writers and artists were at their height and Shostakovich himself came in for official criticism, this work shares with Beethoven’s Ninth a tonic key (D minor) and an initial atmosphere of urgent anxiety, which Denève maintained on Thursday night by moving the music along with a certain wary reticence that seemed to mirror the composer’s state of mind.

Under Denève’s direction, the brief, sarcastic scherzo—muttering one moment, shrieking the next—was so expertly rendered that one regretted that audiences aren’t allowed any more to stop the show and demand that a movement be repeated.

But there was no postponing the black hole of a Largo at the center of this symphony.  From its long stretches of despondent pianissimo to the fierce glare of its emotional climax, one sensed the conductor’s attention to the long arc of the music, while bringing out what touches of color could be found in Shostakovich’s bleak score.

And now the unavoidable question: What was Shostakovich saying when he abruptly shattered the Largo’s dark meditation with the finale’s brassy march?  Was this the Soviet artist rousing himself from his lethargy, or being crushed under the dictator’s heel?

On Thursday night, Denève left no doubt where he stood on the matter, driving the music forward with brute force and snarling fury; at the movement’s D major peroration, the brass seemed to cry for mercy while the violins scraped their repeated high A’s like saws going through bone.  If younger members of Thursday’s audience ever wonder what people in this country were so scared of during the Cold War, they need only recall the terrible power and ruthless efficiency of this performance.

Stéphane Denève will conduct this program again 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.  Marcelo Lehninger will conduct the same program 8 p.m. Tuesday.; 617-266-1492.

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