Kinetic energy rules in Dutoit’s Russian program with BSO

April 23, 2014 at 7:38 pm

By David Wright

Behzod Abduraimov performed Rachmaninoff Tuesday night with Charles Dutoit and the BSO: Photo: Stu Rosner.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra was wearing its running shoes Tuesday night as Charles Dutoit moved it smartly through three works by Russian composers.

Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, in the familiar arrangement by Rimsky-Korsakov, got things off to a flying start with whirling string triplets, chattering winds, and most memorably, brass thunder that was scary big without any forcing.

The performance was so expert and well-oiled, in fact, that it came up a little short on the frenzy meter.  Mussorgsky’s whiplash turns and twists, meant to evoke chaos loosed on the world, sounded rather familiar and orderly—not enough witches’ sabbath, too much cocktail party.  Bald Mountain became Beacon Hill.

As a result, the coda’s sense of exhaustion and hangover didn’t come through clearly either, and the performance overall had the character of a brilliant curtain-raiser with a curiously slow and quiet conclusion.

Athleticism was also the watchword in Rachmininoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with an Olympic-quality soloist in the 24-year-old pianist from Tashkent, Behzod Abduraimov, making his BSO debut.

Of course “faster, higher, stronger” must be part of any piece inspired by the violinist and ur-virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, but Abduraimov’s playing had other virtues besides breathtaking speed and agility.  He could shape a phrase handsomely at all tempos, including blindingly fast, and his tone, while not offering much color variety, was reliably clear in soft passages and well-rounded in forte and fortissimo.

While Abduraimov’s youthful earnestness was endearing, in the early going he seemed to miss much of the humor and ironic wit that is essential to this dry piece from Rachmaninoff’s later years.  One imagines he will understand those things better someday.  Meanwhile, it was a pleasure to watch someone so young and accomplished perform with such assurance; after the brilliant last variations and coda the audience called him back repeatedly for bows.

For their part, Dutoit and the orchestra neglected some details here and there—such as overly loud wind solos—but shone in their tutti variations, from a snappy military episode to a lavishly big Big Tune in the 18th variation.

Lately, it has seemed as though the echoes in Symphony Hall have barely died away from one performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony before another one begins.  The previous one that was uppermost in many listeners’ minds Tuesday was the probing, highly inflected performance by the BSO last season, led by the not-yet-music-director-designate Andris Nelsons.

Dutoit’s rendering was about as different from Nelsons’s as two interpretations of this piece can get.  After a very slow, muted introduction full of suspenseful pauses, Dutoit gave the cue and the orchestra took off on the main allegro, never to look back.  Fast but unrushed, Dutoit’s conducting generated much kinetic excitement as the fortissimo climaxes rolled in one after another, like waves pounding the shore. With its proportions thus preserved, this first movement sounded less like an episodic collection of passionate themes and more like a real classical sonata-allegro.

The conductor kept the Andante cantabile moving too, with plenty of rewards along the way, starting with an unusually free and expressive opening horn solo, skillful dovetailing of phrases in the woodwinds, beautifully crafted elaborations for violins of the horn theme and the symphony’s opening motto theme, and a hair-raising sudden outburst of brass pumping out the “Fate” version of the motto.

One hoped that, in a performance characterized by forward motion, the waltz movement would have a nice lift to it.  Unfortunately, tempo and rhythm were pushed to the point that this waltz sounded almost as if it were in two-to-a-bar instead of three.  The skittering interlude for the violins sounded all right at a fast tempo, but when it combined with the waltz theme everything seemed to be tumbling down a hill.  It was hard to imagine dancers moving to this performance.

This symphony’s finale can sound disorganized, with several climaxes too many.  Dutoit’s solution, not surprisingly, was to take the main Allegro vivace at a breathless pace, so that the music again came in unstoppable waves, again splendidly reinforced by the brass, leaving the listener no time to wonder whether all this was excessive or not.  Near the end it was a relief to hear the motto theme one last time broadened out to molto maestoso, Dutoit looking the über-maestro as he serenely waved the stick over it all.

Some may prefer a more reflective Tchaikovsky, or fortissimos anticipated with big pullbacks on the tempo.  But when a conductor can generate as much excitement as Dutoit did Tuesday, while also bringing out many fine details in the orchestral texture, it’s been a good night at Symphony Hall.

The performance will be repeated 8 p.m. Thursday.  The Rachmaninoff work will be repeated, with works by Glinka and Berlioz, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 617-266-1200.

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