Boston Symphony Orchestra in New York

Miroirs – Alborada del gracioso [orch. Ravel]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [orch. Ravel]
Piano Concerto in G
Daphnis et Chloé

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 8 October, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

James Levine brought his Boston Symphony Orchestra to Carnegie Hall with an all-Ravel programme featuring Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing the Piano Concerto in G with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus joining for a complete performance of Daphnis et Chloé.

Ravel is famed for his colorful orchestrations, and this concert amply confirmed that reputation. It began with two short works originally composed for piano and transcribed for orchestra by the composer; each piece has a prominent place in the repertoire.

In its orchestral version, ‘Alborada del gracioso’ – from the 1905 piano set, Miroirs – retains the fascinating Spanish rhythms of the original, but adds a wide array of orchestral timbres that turn the work into a spectacular showpiece. The string-playing was exemplary in the pizzicatos that opened the work and recurred intermittently, in tremolos that created an eerie atmosphere, and in low, throbbing passages. The real fireworks, however, were supplied by the BSO’s principal bassoon, flute and trumpet, and the entire percussion section, with xylophone, castanets, tambourine and snare drum driving and enlivening the persistent rhythms. Levine and his Bostonians showed off Carnegie’s magnificent acoustics to full advantage, their brilliant performance at times surrounding the listener with a gentle resonance and at others nearly rocking the Hall, as in the final bars with a wonderful low brass riff just before the concluding chords.

The contrast between Alborada and the ensuing Pavane was evident even before Levine’s upbeat, as six wind players and all six brass players had left the stage along with a harpist and all of the percussionists. The scaled-down ensemble captured the Pavane’s solemnity, producing a delicate, graceful sound with phrasing that seemed to breathe naturally and even, at times, to sigh. Each iteration of the opening theme – by the horns at the start, and later the winds and then the strings – was beautifully played, and the ultimate fade-out was masterfully managed, with the audience holding its collective breath (and its applause) at the end.

The atmosphere underwent a considerable change with Thibaudet’s spirited performance of the Piano Concerto in G. Throughout the Allegramente first movement, from the opening whip-crack and syncopated piccolo solo to the pervasive Gershwin-influenced blues riffs, the trill-laden cadenza, and the driving rush to the surprisingly sudden finish, Thibaudet played with a precise touch that allowed each note to come through distinctly even in the most rapid and percussive passages. The orchestra players also contributed some noteworthy moments, as in the andante passage where the solo harp’s simultaneous glissandos and harmonics created a drone-like effect reminiscent of the Indian tamboura.

In the prolonged piano solo that began the Adagio assai, Thibaudet maintained a steady triple-meter beat with his left hand whilst giving a contemplative account of the simple melody with his right. When the orchestra joined him, Thibaudet intensified the emotional atmosphere as the piano part became increasingly chromatic, but the orchestra remained more securely anchored tonally, producing an interesting contrast. Thibaudet was quite restrained and gentle in the runs that accompanied the lengthy – and beautifully played – cor anglais solo, and then concluded the movement with a long trill that died away gradually.

A brief, percussive introduction set Thibaudet racing forward in the bouncy Presto, with solos on E flat clarinet, trombone and piccolo helping to set a jazzy mood. Midway through, rapid piano arpeggios were accompanied by solo bassoon scales, with B flat and E flat clarinets, horns, trumpets, trombones, piccolo and snare drum all chiming in with colourful accents. Thibaudet kept up the furious pace whilst maintaining a light and airy mood that persisted through the concluding set of rapid-fire arpeggios and chords, capped off by the final drum stroke.

The second half of the concert was given over to a complete performance of Daphnis et Chloé in a sumptuous reading. This music is more-often performed in one of the two Suites that Ravel arranged, based on music drawn mostly from the ballet’s second and third scenes. (Indeed, Levine and the orchestra had performed only the Second Suite on its opening night in Boston the previous week.) Much credit for bringing the complete score into the concert repertory must go to Charles Munch, who, as as a previous music director of the BSO, performed and twice-recorded it brilliantly in the 1950s and 1960s. Ravel regarded this work as having an overarching symphonic structure that builds on motifs introduced early in the score. Only with the restoration of musical material from the opening scene can the development of the themes that pervade the ballet’s later scenes be appreciated fully.

As in the first portion of the programme, Levine’s evocation of Ravel’s varied tonal colors was spectacular. But he never lost sight of either the tonal or dramatic development of the work, shaping a performance that both narrated the Daphnis and Chloe myth and held its own as an abstract symphonic composition.

The extended introductory section set the mood, with flute, horn and oboe solos suggestive of the lovers heard over violin tremolos and the soft intonations of the wordless chorus, transporting us at once to a meadow in the ballet’s mythical realm. Soon the strings began a religious dance, with winds and horns joining to create a luxuriant texture that would recur throughout the work. Harp glissandos and beautifully played horn and violin solos marked the entrance of Daphnis and Chloé, and a muted trumpet solo portrayed young girls dancing around Daphnis. The cowherd Dorcon and Daphnis dance in competition for a kiss from Chloé, with markedly different rhythms and timbres aptly highlighting Dorcon’s grotesqueness and the triumphant Daphnis’s gracefulness. Particularly lovely were the clarinet solo at the entrance of the temptress Lyceion, the flute solo representing her seductive dance, and the cor anglais solo which, along with bass clarinet, bassoons, cellos and double basses, signified the entrance of the pirates who abduct Chloé despite Daphnis’s efforts to save her. At the end of the first scene, statues of three nymphs (portrayed by flute, muted horn and clarinet solos) come to life as muted strings play tremolos sul tasto. The nymphs dance mysteriously, revive and console Daphnis, and invoke the god Pan.

After an evocative interlude by the a cappella chorus, the orchestra, in a section marked ‘Animé et très rude’, depicted the pirate camp along a rugged seacoast. Here the BSO’s double basses stood out, with the brass and percussion also helping to create one of the most exciting rhythmic passages in the work. Against the accompaniment of repeated figures on muted trumpet and pizzicato strings, a sensuous theme played first by the piccolo sustained the pace but lightened the atmosphere. The theme was then taken up by solo clarinet, and as the mood calmed further, by solos on alto flute, oboe and, once again, clarinet. Soon a driving rhythm returned, with the tenors and basses joining the orchestra to bring the pirates’ dance to a shattering climax.

A sumptuous cor anglais solo portrayed Chloé’s dance of supplication before the assembled pirates, interrupted twice by her futile attempts to escape. The tempo quickened as the music reflected her abduction by the pirate leader, but then slowed suddenly as satyrs appear and surround the pirates, who are routed by Pan’s fearsome shadow.

Levine, having managed these dynamic and rhythmic swings superbly, began the third scene with a glorious evocation of sunrise, replete with birdsong. The centrepiece of this final scene is the pantomime by Daphnis and Chloé of the story of Pan and Syrinx, which features an extended solo performed with exceptional delicacy and richness of tone by principal flute Elizabeth Rowe, whose playing was outstanding throughout. A slow, rapturous melody in the strings and a violin solo celebrated Daphnis and Chloé’s love, and a joyful general dance concluded the ballet, with all of the colours of the orchestra and chorus on display, and with Levine bringing them to a fever pitch. This was playing and singing of exceptional quality.

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