Dutoit leads BSO in rewarding program at Tanglewood

July 30, 2017 at 1:18 pm

By Lawrence Budmen

Pierre Laurent-Aimard performed Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand with Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Saturday night at Tanglewod. Photo: Hilary Scott

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand with Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Saturday night at Tanglewod. Photo: Hilary Scott

Credit Charles Dutoit with an adventurous spirit. In 2016 he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra and vocal forces in Rossini’s rarely heard setting of the Stabat Mater at Tanglewood. On Saturday night Dutoit offered an even more daring program at the Koussevitzky Music Shed in the Berkshires. A recently discovered Stravinsky work, a less frequently played Ravel concerto and a massive choral score by Berlioz formed the stimulating music menu.

Chant funebre (Funeral Song) was composed in 1909 by Stravinsky to be played at a memorial service for Rimsky-Korsakov, his teacher. Following the composer’s emigration to the West, the score was lost during the Russian Revolution. Stravinsky always suspected that a set of parts could be found in the archives of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and he proved exactly right. In 2015 the score was located when a trove of music was discovered as the building was being cleared for renovations. Dutoit led the American premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this past April. He clearly believes in the work and for good reason. The score forms the missing link between the early Fireworks and The Firebird, the ballet that would firmly establish Stravinsky’s reputation.

Lasting around 10 minutes, the resurrected work is both beautiful and introspective. Initial rumblings in the basses and wind figurations suggest The Firebird aborning. After two harps strike repeated grim chords, a cortege like theme rises in the brass and strings. The big brassy climaxes indicate the influence of Wagner. A master of orchestral color, Dutoit reveled in the rich orchestral textures devised by the young Stravinsky, drawing lustrous playing from all sections of the orchestra in this BSO premiere.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was created for Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist whose right arm had to be amputated due to wounds suffered in World War I. This compact showpiece is a challenge for any soloist and Pierre-Laurent Aimard met it head on. With technique to burn, Aimard offered a refreshingly modernist take on the concerto that was devoid of impressionistic mistiness. With just the left hand, he drew great depth of sonority from the keyboard. Aimard’s phrasing was frequently angular and he effectively mixed episodes of pearly tone with a hard edged sensibility.

Dutoit is one of the most skilled collaborators on the podium today. He was with Aimard every bar of the way. Rhythms were crisp and the bluesy sections had an authentic New Orleans ‘down and dirty’ zest. Instrumental details emerged with special clarity.

Berlioz’s Te Deum is scored for massive forces –double chorus, children’s choir, organ, tenor soloist and a huge orchestra. In that respect it is typically Berlioz. The score’s musical language is more like that of a liturgical work from the French Baroque, revised and refracted through the prism of Berlioz. The fugal writing for the choruses is comparable in mastery to that of Bach. This is music that makes a joyful noise indeed with tones of inspired eloquence. The fragmentary motifs intoned by organ and plucked strings at the start of the third movement “Dignare, Domini” are strikingly original.

Dutoit superbly commanded this intricate and multilayered canvass. His accents were vigorous and strong and the 44-minute work flowed organically without heaviness. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus under new director James Burton was full voiced, vociferous and well balanced. In the hymn Tibi omnes angeli”, three pairs of cymbals stormed the heavens in the big climaxes. The sheer variety of volume and vocal tone Dutoit obtained from the massed forces was astounding. James David Christie’s organ thundered impressively but proved almost orchestral in color and nuance during more quiet moments. The purity of the children’s’ voices from the Choral Arts Society Youth Choir (under Brandon Straub) evoked the ethereal expression.

Despite singing with passionate expressiveness and Gallic style, tenor Paul Groves’ solo in the penultimate “Te ergo quasesumus” proved disappointing. Once a fine Mozart singer and more recently an aspiring Wagnerian, Groves’ worn voice is afflicted by a thick vibrato and his high notes were effortful.

Kudos to Dutoit for reviving this neglected masterpiece in such a well prepared and idiomatic performance. His championing of choral rarities have been continuing high point of recent  Tanglewood seasons.

The Tanglewood Festival continues with Bramwell Tovey conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman as and Walton’s Belshazaar’s Feast with bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus 2:30 p.m. July 30 at the Koussevitzky Music Shed. bso.org

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