Boston Symphony Orchestra/Denève in New York – Ravel & Shostakovich – Peter Serkin plays Stravinsky

Ma mere l’oye – Suite
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Peter Serkin (piano)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 9 March, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Stéphane Denève. Photograph: J. Henry FairI’m not so sure if I liked Stéphane Denève’s approach to Ravel’s Mother Goose. The soft-edged phrasing and subtle tempo shifts didn’t serve the rhythmic or melodic beauty of the opening ‘Pavane’ (which also suffered a few ensemble lapses) or ‘Tom Thumb’ well, and some strangely rushed phrases in ‘Laideronette’ were distracting. The last two movements fared quite a bit better, with impressively evocative playing in the quieter sections.

Peter SerkinStravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds also requires low strings; Denève opted for more than the usual complement of double basses. The balance was ideal. The performance had abundant character right from the first notes of the dour, funereal opening. The Allegro that followed had all the rhythmic punch one would expect from Stravinsky, but also abundant color, with Peter Serkin’s impeccable phrasing bringing vigorous momentum to not only the opening movement but the central slow one, which took on a surprisingly light quality. Both Denève and Serkin reined in the more-frenetic nature of the finale; I was hoping for a bit more edge, but the unexpected urbane, elegant character was surprisingly impressive.

After the Stravinsky, I was expecting a strongly characterized performance of the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich. Denève delivered quite the opposite: a virtuoso performance that served more as a showcase for the orchestra’s strengths than a bold statement on a symphony whose meaning remains controversial. There was nobility aplenty in the opening movement, but a disappointing absence of menace or impact. The second movement was authoritatively rhythmic, but lacked a sense of irony and a twist of vulgarity. The pianissimos in the third movement were stunning in their beauty, but the early climactic crescendo provided neither the necessary catharsis nor a gateway to the passionate music that should follow. And with the exception of a moment of less-that-unified playing from the strings during a few bars of the opening, the finale was executed with virtuoso precision. Yet the entire symphony came off more as a concerto for orchestra than a chronicle of horrific times.

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