Hard-driving Denève and elegant Thibaudet excel in French and Scottish works with BSO

November 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm

By David Wright

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs with Stephane Denève and the Boston Symphony Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

A lot of musical works have loud endings.  How many loud endings are too many for one concert?  Boston Symphony Orchestra ticketholders may have found out at Thursday night’s performance led by Stephane Denève.

Perhaps mindful of an appearance last February in which he made a powerful impression leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a pile-driving performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the French-born conductor reached for the big-bang magic four more times Thursday in pieces by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, MacMillan, and Roussel.

And for the most part he succeeded, the orchestra delivering whip-smart, if somewhat raucous, performances in response to Denève’s compelling beat and eloquent urgings from the podium.  Nothing wrong with that—it’s just that, by the time the conductor karate-chopped the explosive final chord of Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2 to close the concert, one had begun to wonder if he knew any way to land the plane except to crash it. To be fair, the loud endings were appropriate to the pieces selected, and impressively performed.

The evening’s boisterous-coda gold medal went, not surprisingly, to Hector Berlioz, the unsurpassed hurler of thunderbolts, whose Overture to Les Francs-juges cranked up furiously and closed with a sudden chromatic swerve, breathtakingly executed by Denève and his players.

Prior to the ending, Denève led a taut performance that never lost its way, even in the hushed introduction, full of pauses and hesitations.  In the overture’s main section—and throughout this concert, actually—fast music had a lifting, driving momentum without ever sounding rushed or helter-skelter, thanks to this conductor’s unshakable control of rhythm.

It was also an evening of hard, bright orchestral color.  In the Overture, Denève let Berlioz’s well-known love affair with low brass bloom to the point where, when the trombones and tuba were playing, one could hardly hear anyone else.

Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, “Egyptian,” closes as most Romantic piano concertos do, with an orchestral crescendo and a torrent of octaves for the soloist, in this case thrillingly brought off by Denève and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

This was actually one of the few really loud moments in a piece characterized more by gentle musings and fantasy than bravura.  Which is not to say the pianist isn’t given millions of notes to play, just that he is expected to play them—as Thibaudet did, superbly—with a kind of insouciance and delicate phrasing that conceals how fiendishly difficult those wafting scales and arpeggios are.

Thibaudet’s tone, while not especially warm or singing, was admirably clear, and he voiced chords beautifully.  His fine control of touch in leggiero passages was just what this score needed, and his elegant rubato lent distinction to the performance.

Denève was an attentive collaborator, dancing with the piano in the first movement’s swaying three-to-a-bar, and following every flight of fancy in the ever-changing atmosphere of the concerto’s strangely diverse middle movement.

The loud ending of James MacMillan’s “Three Interludes” from The Sacrifice sounded a bit forced.  Perhaps it and the other excerpts from the composer’s 2006 opera suffered from persistent comparisons, in the program notes and in Denève’s spoken comments from the podium, between this music and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  Except for the subject matter—a tribal ritual ending in a death—and a general atmosphere of menace and violence, it was hard to hear much resemblance between the pieces.

In his spoken remarks, the conductor explained this Scottish composer’s presence on an otherwise French program by noting that he himself had lived in Scotland for seven years and became a fan of MacMillan’s music for the way it “captures in a melodic way the spirit and perfume of that country.”  Also, he said, the “roughness and truculence” of MacMillan’s style matched similar qualities in Roussel’s ballet.

Actually, The Sacrifice is not exactly Scottish, having been composed for the Welsh National Opera and based on a medieval Welsh epic.  But one can allow for a certain pan-Celtic sensibility, and certainly the history of Scotland contains enough tribal strife for a dozen epics.

The title of the first interlude, “The Parting,” describes what is taking place in the opera between the star-crossed lovers.  However, in this performance it was anything but a tender moment, musically speaking; the war of the rival clans seemed to roar and mutter just offstage.

“Passacaglia” uses this baroque form of variations over a repeating bass line to depict the arrival of guests for a wedding feast—ill-fated, of course—in which each one enters in a different meter, tempo, or tone color, building to a nervous cacophony.  This and the final interlude, “The Investiture,” came across as colorfully scored virtuoso pieces for orchestra, in which complex lines, often blindingly fast, weave together in waves of sound over pulsing rhythms, all of it executed to near-perfection by Denève and the players.

The elusive Albert Roussel, the noted Impressionist-Classicist-Modernist of the early twentieth century, student of D’Indy and teacher of Varèse, showed all those sides of himself in his two-act ballet Bacchus et Ariane, of which the so-called Suite No. 2 is actually a continuous piece consisting of the ballet’s entire second act.

Like the Berlioz overture, Roussel’s score opened in a moody, sketchy pianissimo, expertly held together by Denève until the princess Ariadne could awake and find herself alone on her island.  There followed passages that could be compared to Prokofiev’s ballets or even Rachmaninoff’s lush melodies for strings and horns, although somewhat drier and edgier in tone than either.

Some fine, rich-toned instrumental solos, led by the BSO’s associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, depicted Bacchus and his minions gathering one by one for the dance.  Then Denève marshaled the edgy strings, the chattering woodwinds, and the rest of the band to “play as one” while crescendo piled atop crescendo in the tempestuous Bacchanale, surging inexorably to that final chord, which earned an ovation for Denève and the orchestra, the conductor waving up sections for their bows.

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

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