Altinoglu returns for impressive French program with BSO

January 10, 2020 at 11:51 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Thierry Escaich performed Poulenc’s Organ Concerto with Alain Altinoglu conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

In the summer of 1936, Francis Poulenc was mired in a personal crisis. Following the death of his friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Poulenc sought solace that reignited his Catholic faith. 

That newfound spirituality is manifest in his Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani, completed in 1938. Tinged with dissonances that recall the jazz-age bite of Poulenc’s early music, the concerto is ultimately an essay in power and reverence. 

Organist Thierry Escaich communicated all of the splendor and devotion when he performed the concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Alain Altinoglu, in an impressive return to the BSO podium, led the way.

Escaich has a flair for Poulenc’s tricky and sweeping writing for the organ. He found the grandeur of the concerto’s opening statement, the crushing harmonies resonating powerfully on Symphony Hall’s Aeolian-Skinner instrument.

Yet Escaich charted the concerto’s soft passages with probing sensitivity. With gentle touch, he wove the organ lines sensitively with with the strings and even in its sudden crescendos he never drowned out the ensemble.

The energetic passages central to the concerto showcased the French organist in an equally delicate balance with the musicians onstage. His runs coursed vibrantly, with the final section of the work taking on an almost manic energy under his fingers. Daniel Bauch was a sturdy musical presence, providing accompanying timpani strokes that were felt as much as heard. Altinoglu made for a simpatico partner, drawing gleaming phrases from the accompanying strings.

Rapturous applause brought Escaich back to the organ for an encore–his own fiery, Virgil Fox-style improvisation. 

The concert opened with Altinoglu’s own suite from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Suites from Debussy’s only opera are often pieced together from the orchestral interludes or vocal accompaniments. But Altinoglu’s twenty-four-minute suite reads like a symphonic poem that follows the drama of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist story. The introductory oboe melody captures the innocence and mystery of Mélisande. Dark chromatic lines that could be at home in Wagner’s Parsifal set the scene where she and Pelléas search for a golden ring, and trumpet and trombone calls break like waves against the orchestral forces at the suite’s height.

Altinoglu charted a course that allowed for the misty beauties of Debussy’s conception to flower. 

Altinoglu also brought his eye for the big picture to Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, which came after intermission.

Cast in two long movements, the Organ Symphony remains Saint-Saëns’s most popular work. In it, the composer poured all of his experiences as a musician, and the diverse sections showcase colorful orchestrations and even virtuosic piano runs.

Altinoglu offered a dynamic reading that revealed the symphony’s grand design. The slow introduction took on a haunting distance before the music surged in the ensuing Allegro moderato, which the conductor led at a brisk pace. Throughout, the reading had a firm sense of momentum, the recapitulation bringing satisfying resolve when the opening theme returned.

The Poco adagio offered a resplendent departure. There, Altinoglu drew attention to every line as it rose and fell away while Escaich’s organ harmonies supplied a gentle backdrop.

The Scherzo took on an aptly rough, Beethovenian edge; the winds brought vitality to the Trio. Altinoglu released the tension in the finale, where the brass fanfares complemented Escaich’s grand organ statements in the final resounding measures.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200

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