Thibaudet serves up a Saint-Saëns rarity to highlight BSO program

February 17, 2023 at 11:33 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 with Lahav Shani conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

For sheer energetic playing alone, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Thursday night was rousing. Indeed, in the ensemble’s traversal of pieces by Sergei Prokofiev, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Sergei Rachmaninoff last night, that quality was abundantly evidenced.

It was apparent, too, that the evening’s intensity level owed more than a little to the man on the podium, Lahav Shani. Making his Symphony Hall debut, the 34-year-old chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and music director of the Israel Philharmonic cuts a dynamic presence.

His gestures are direct and athletic. Cues are clean and clear. Periodically he breaks into a little shimmy. Throughout, Shani was a centrifugal presence on the stage. Yet sometimes less can be more, as the conductor’s take on Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony reminded.

This 1917 score overflows with character and personality, bringing the insouciant wit of Haydn firmly into the 20th century. On Thursday, though, the Symphony’s subtleties were only fleetingly evident.

Shani certainly drew playing of color and rhythmic bite from his forces. Textures (like the inner lines of the Larghetto) were routinely and admirably clear. However, its first three movements were, throughout, a touch literal and mechanical, Shani’s hyperkinetic cues seeming at odds with the music’s fundamentally discreet, droll aspect.

Accordingly, the Allegro was about as humorous as clockwork. The Gavotte clomped along like a peasant dance. Only in the effervescent finale did everything truly fall into place: here laughing violin lines and swirling woodwind figurations erupted, gloriously, with joyful abandon.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, which closed the evening, offer fewer moments of unbridled delight. Completed in 1940, this three-movement essay is the composer’s last major work.

Despite the music’s obsessive quotations of the Dies irae chant, Thursday’s account didn’t feel particularly valedictory. Instead, Shani—who was more reined in here than in the Prokofiev—emphasized the Dances’ play of rhythm and lyricism.

The first movement, in which he took Rachmaninoff’s “Non allegro” tempo marking literally, unfolded richly. Its songful writing, highlighted by Ryan Yuré’s lush saxophone solos, spoke beguilingly. Meanwhile, the taut outer sections gamboled with brusque focus.

In the central waltz, Shani wasn’t tripped up by the music’s hesitant phrasing. Rather, Thursday’s was a soulful, often sumptuous reading of this mysterious movement, with concertmaster Alexander Velinzon’s short solos leading the way.

Only in the finale did the conductor’s approach not fully pay off and here the issue was, partly, a matter of dynamic nuance: the distance between mezzo-forte and fortissimo was too small. At the same time, the movement’s variation form resulted in some structural choppiness, especially between the reflective central part and its more extroverted outer thirds.

That said, the music’s rhythms snapped and, even in the bold spots, the blend of instruments was largely flawless: Shani might have liked parts of his Rachmaninoff loud, but it was never shrill. Later, there were episodes of imbalance between percussion and low strings, yet the finale’s larger impression was coloristically true—the coda’s cinematic gestures were explosive and shapely.

The night’s most satisfying overall outing, though, involved pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian.” Though the French composer has lately fallen out of vogue (Hugh MacDonald’s BSO program note was surprisingly negative about the composer’s music), Saint-Saëns music really comes to life with the right advocate.

On Thursday, that was consistently Thibaudet, whose grasp of the work at hand was such that even its glittering first-movement filigree seemed preordained. Throughout, the pianist’s cleanly voiced, pure-toned delivery of the solo part was gripping, nowhere more so than in the peripatetic Andante, whose sheer invention—from its imitations of organ stops to the “Nubian” theme that anticipates Ravel – has rarely sounded fresher.

In the Allegro animato, Shani, still in Prokofiev mode, drew a hard-edged accompaniment from the BSO that didn’t always congeal with Thibaudet’s more refined, characterful approach. But by the second movement he had found the happy medium and everything clicked. The blistering finale—with its circus-like woodwind licks, pounding rhythmic figures, and excellent balances between pianist and orchestra—proved downright electrifying.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.

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