BSO’s Duruflé glows and a Walton rarity receives captivating advocacy

February 28, 2020 at 11:08 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Johannes Moser performed Walton’s Cello Concerto with Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Of all the conductor relationships the Boston Symphony Orchestra has built over the last decade, the partnership with Giancarlo Guerrero has proven to be one of the most satisfying from a programmatic standpoint – if less consistent musically.

That was demonstrated again on Thursday, when Guerrero returned to Symphony Hall to lead the BSO in an enticing set of rarely-heard pieces by William Walton and Maurice Duruflé, plus a Helen Grime premiere.

Duruflé’s 1947 Requiem, with which the evening closed, had, in fact, only been played once before by the BSO – and then in 1983. A lush, meditative score that draws equally on plainchant and the 20th-century French harmonic tradition, it largely eschews the Roman rite’s depictions of judgment, instead focusing on themes of redemption and eternal rest.

On Thursday, the BSO was joined by Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Children’s Choir. Both groups sang with warmth and fine diction, the youth ensemble also exhibiting breathtakingly pure tone.

Accordingly, the Requiem’s devotional elements, from the carefully balanced “Introit” to the urgent “Pie Jesu” and ethereal “In Paradisum,” came across strongly. So did its more athletic and dramatic episodes: the shapely “Kyrie,” the “Sanctus” with its blazing apexes, the moments of thrilling release during the “dies illa, dies irae” setting in the “Libera me.”

In general, Guerrero’s reading was smartly paced, thoughtfully shaped, and well-balanced, though some big moments (like the climax of the “Domine Jesu Christe”) were texturally muddled and sour woodwind intonation marred that section’s refrains in the “Lux aeterna.”

Even so, the larger performance – particularly the blend between the massed forces and Heinrich Christensen’s organ – was tight, and the Requiem’s exposed, inward moments (like the “Agnus Dei” and “In Paradisum’s” fadeout) rang with unaffected urgency.

A similar – if less sacred – imperativeness also marked the account of Walton’s Cello Concerto that preceded intermission.

Written for Gregor Piatigorsky and premiered by him and the BSO in 1957, the work has only been presented by the orchestra on three other occasions, most recently in 1997.

Why that’s the case is an open question. Yes, Walton’s writing owes a debt—or many—to Prokofiev: the concerto’s first movement, for instance, sounds could have been lifted wholesale out of sketches for Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet.

But the focused lyricism of the larger work, the bravura displays of the central movement, and the sheer invention of the finale’s “improvisations” would, one might have hoped, rescue this brilliant music from obscurity.

While that hasn’t yet happened, in Johannes Moser’s hands, Walton’s final concerto speaks volumes. Thursday night, the first movement sang with an impellent warmth of tone and captivating sense of space: this was a reading that was luxurious yet directed. The central movement bristled with spunk and character, while the finale soared passionately.

Moser brought terrific technique – his intonation and articulation were spot-on—and a captivating sense of personality to his part. Indeed, his was an account that brimmed with soul from start to finish (and that includes the fragile Bach “Sarabande” he played as an encore).

Guerrero drew playing of vibrant energy and precision from the BSO. Their accompaniment in the first movement was droll; the second, radiantly colored; and the end of the finale serene.

To open the evening, Guerrero led the BSO premiere of Helen Grime’s Limina.

Written for the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra last year, Limina takes its inspiration from Tarjei Vesaas’s novel The Ice Palace and its depiction of the main character’s mental state as she searches for her friend.

Grime’s score is kinetic, densely woven, and kaleidoscopically orchestrated. Her building blocks are straightforward – frigid string arpeggios, percussion riffs, and ominous brass chorales, chief among them – and craftily worked out.

Yet, despite playing of rhythmic tautness, Thursday’s interpretation fell flat—partly due to the limitations of Grime’s generically busy style, but also due to a performance that required greater dynamic contrast and stronger delineation of structure.

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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