French music provides the highlights with Haitink, Thibaudet and BSO

April 24, 2015 at 12:38 pm

By David Wright

Conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink led the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Dominick Reuter

It was vive-la-France night Thursday at Symphony Hall as a Mozart masterpiece ended up taking a back seat to two French works and one French-inspired one.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by its conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink, achieved marvels of tone shading and nuance in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’oye, a (literally) whip-cracking performance of that composer’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G, and still more subtle effects in Thomas Adès’s Three Studies from Couperin, before closing with a comparatively routine rendering of the Salzburg master’s “Linz” Symphony.

Ravel’s “Mother Goose” was conceived in 1908-10 as a suite of five fairy-tale pieces for piano four-hands, subsequently orchestrated by the composer, and has become a concert-hall favorite in the latter form.  In 1911 Ravel expanded the suite into a ballet, adding two movements, lengthening the original ones, and composing transitional music between them. The orchestra performed this less-often-heard version on Thursday night.

At this performance one anticipated wishing for the suite, each movement a tidy gem, instead of the complete ballet, since ballet scores often contain passages that don’t make much sense without dancers.

But it was precisely in the transitions that Haitink and the orchestra mined gold Thursday. Following a Prelude that was a study in shades of pianissimo, and a story-framing Spinning Wheel Dance worthy of comparison with the spinning songs of Mendelssohn and Schubert, the familiar vignettes of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas, and the rest emerged from mists of the imagination delicately evoked by the players as they mixed Ravel’s rich colors of muted strings, winds, harp, and celesta.

Restraint, in fact, marked the entire performance.  Crescendos were kept brief and in check, and the playing emphasized color and charm over snazzy effects, even to the beautifully gauged long crescendo of the work’s closing Apotheosis.

In utter contrast to the vaporous “Mother Goose,” the crack of a whip—or rather, the percussion instrument by that name—launched the Piano Concerto in G like a starter’s gun. (Even here, though, Haitink showed restraint, keeping the crack in context, mezzo forte.)

Ravel composed the concerto soon after a whirlwind U.S. tour, during which he avidly listened to popular music and met George Gershwin.   So it’s understandable that some moments in this work sound like An American in Paris, since the composer had recently been a Parisian in America.

The musicians on Thursday dug with gusto into the first movement’s syncopations and bluesy harmonies, especially piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who is an accomplished jazz player as well as concert artist.  The deft and mutually supportive interactions between Thibaudet and various orchestra members were a constant delight.

The pianist opened the second movement alone, playing Ravel’s long, winding theme with a rather slender, covered tone, the inspiration for which became apparent later in the movement, when the BSO’s Robert Sheena took up the theme in an extended, deeply expressive english horn solo.  The playing throughout this movement was marked by outward simplicity coupled with barely perceptible yet eloquent fluctuations of tempo.

The closing Presto was fast but firmly under control, making its impression not so much with raw speed as with lightning wit, pinpoint timing, and bursts of virtuosity from all over, such as when orchestral winds mirrored the pianist’s blazing scales. Thibaudet’s zesty performance earned him an ovation and three returns to the stage.


From Stravinsky-Pergolesi to Webern-Bach and Britten-Purcell, the idea of “modern composer contemplates Baroque master” has become virtually a genre unto itself.  An eighteenth-century composition emerges from the twentieth- or twenty-first-century imagination transformed, illuminated, or sometimes just sounding like a blurry version of itself.

Happily Thomas Adès’s 2006 piece Three Studies from Couperin didn’t fall in the last category.  The harpsichord pieces of François Couperin have, just by the nature of the instrument, a certain laser-like clarity, and the English composer took three of them and looked for the expressive shadows in the music, appearing at times almost to be having a dream about them.

The latter was especially true of the first piece, “Les Amusements,” in which fragments of the original piece gently jostled each other in a pianissimo murmur of displaced accents, an effect not unlike that of the Prelude to “Mother Goose.”

Couperin’s original was more recognizable in “Les Tours de passe-passe” (The sleight-of-hand), but the flowing harpsichord piece was amusingly complicated by breathless, off-the-beat interjections from winds and muted trumpet.

The sighing phrases of “L’Âme en peine” (The soul in distress) emerged from a fog of string and marimba sound, with soft strokes of the bass drum darkly reinforcing the cadences.

Haitink artfully managed Adès’s scoring for double string orchestra with single winds and percussion, evoking Schumann-like moods of introspection and fantasy.  Without ever making a loud sound on his dozen or so instruments, percussionist J. William Hudgins contributed immensely to the piece’s atmosphere.

Haitink continued the concert’s air of mystery and restraint right into the Adagio introduction of Mozart’s  Symphony No. 36 in C major, “Linz.” The ensuing Allegro spiritoso, however, could have used a bit more spirit.  Perhaps it’s too much to expect, in a few hours of rehearsal, all the items on a program to show the kind of exquisite attention to detail manifested in the first three pieces Thursday.  So it’s possible that this familiar piece received just a quick shine this week.

Whatever the reason, the orchestra didn’t sound quite as together and accurate as it had previously, and while the performance was agreeably lively in a general sort of way, it didn’t begin to do justice to Mozart’s incredible fertility of imagination and mood shifts on a dime.

Similarly, the Andante—here given a rather fast dance tempo bordering on allegretto—had a nice overall shape and proportion, but could have used more volatility and suspense.  The Menuetto, a simpler item, was well characterized with a Haydn-like stomp to the outer sections, and a charmingly rustic dance for oboe and bassoon in the middle.

The finale’s Presto tempo seemed to summon the players as the previous movements had not. Maintaining a fast but steady beat, Haitink drew out shapely phrases right on time, and even some vivid characterization of passages.

The conductor took the indicated repeats in all four movements, which one has to applaud for the sake of the proportions of the piece, even if it made a long concert longer.  A complete ballet, a concerto, a three-movement piece and a four-movement symphony were a lot to bite off in one night, but for a while at least the caliber of the playing made the time fly.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m.Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday.; 617-266-1200.

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