Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine – Messiaen, Boulez & Berlioz

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Notations I-IV
Harold in Italy, Op.16

Steven Ansell (viola)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 25 October, 2008
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which has long and deep connections to French music, continued its tradition of espousing the works of contemporary Gallic composers in this highly unusual program which included major works by Messiaen and Berlioz, along with the orchestral versions of four of Boulez’s Notations.

Olivier MessiaenMessiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (“And we expect the rising of the dead”), which opened the program, was composed in 1964 on a commission from André Malraux, the French Minister of Culture, to honor those who had died in the two World Wars. The five-movement piece is scored for an orchestra made up of woodwinds, brass and metallic percussion. For this performance, which recognized the hundredth-anniversary of Messiaen’s birth, BSO Music Director James Levine conducted from his chair in its usual place at the front and center of the Symphony Hall stage, with the three-part orchestra positioned near the back of the platform, in three parallel rows about twelve feet from him.

Levine and the BSO musicians delivered a gripping performance of Messiaen’s strongly atmospheric score, which blends birdsong, melodies from Gregorian chant, and rhythmic concepts of the Greek and Hindu traditions. The five movements are untitled, but in the score each is preceded by a Biblical quotation (or group of quotations) reflecting the theme of transition from despair to heavenly joy. Levine followed the composer’s request that the movements should be separated from one another by a full minute of silence, and adopted expressive, somewhat slow tempos that drew out all the grandeur of the relatively direct and straightforward score. Some of the more effective gestures included the poignant sound of the woodwinds and brass winding the slow, solemn melody that opens the first movement, the powerful impact of the tam-tams alternating with chant melodies played on cowbells and the ‘Alleluia’ on trumpet and woodwinds in the fourth movement, and the implacability of the gongs in the surging finale.

James LevinePierre Boulez’s Notations are twelve very short piano pieces written in the 1940s, eight of which the composer has now transformed into greatly expanded orchestral works. This program offered the first four of the orchestral versions, played in the order suggested by Boulez: I, IV, III and II. Levine led a superbly played reading of these enigmatic, finely crafted pieces. The performance was characterized by an astonishing immediacy and clarity, in which echoes of Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók and Schoenberg were plainly audible, and Boulez’s rich percussive palette was in full bloom.

Steven Ansell, the BSO’s principal violist, was the soloist in Berlioz’s groundbreaking Harold in Italy. History tells us that Berlioz wrote the symphony with viola obbligato with Paganini in mind. The legendary violinist, fascinated with a Stradivarius viola but unable to find a suitable work to test his virtuoso skills on the instrument, asked Berlioz to write one for him. Paganini was disappointed with the solo part and never played the work, but he came to appreciate it later, making Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs when it was most needed.

For this performance, Levine and the BSO were in top form, producing an urgent, ardently dramatic reading. Ansell’s intensely lyrical playing responded warmly to Levine’s masterful conducting, especially in the second movement ‘March of the pilgrims’, taken at a slowish tempo. In the ‘Brigands’ orgy’ of the fourth movement, Levine made the recapitulation of earlier themes truly alarming, leading us to a frenetically vigorous finale. Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, seated at the front of the orchestra contributed beautiful playing, as did Robert Sheena on the English horn.

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