Boston Symphony Orchestra/Maazel [Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky & Scriabin]

Suite No.3 in G, Op.55
The Song of the Nightingale
The Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 20 January, 2011
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliA little over a year after stepping in for James Levine in several Beethoven concerts at Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall, Lorin Maazel was back leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but this time as a scheduled guest conductor and in a program of his own choosing. For the occasion Maazel offered three exuberant Russian works, two of which – Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy and Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale – he conducted fifty years ago during his first Boston Symphony appearances in December 1960. These two pieces, along with Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.3, are only rarely played by the BSO. The most recent performance of the Stravinsky was under Pierre Boulez in 1986, and until this concert the Scriabin had not been heard in Symphony Hall since Grant Llewellyn included it in a 1992 program. The BSO had not performed the Tchaikovsky since 2001.

The concert’s first half was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.3, composed in the decade between his Fourth and Fifth symphonies. It’s a captivating if not deeply penetrating piece for which the composer himself had great affection. Maazel, looking tremendously well and fit and conducting from memory (as he usually does, and as he did throughout the evening), brought forth a glittering, highly polished performance. Adopting somewhat swift tempos and infusing all his gestures with remarkable precision and clarity, he drew exceptionally expressive playing from the BSO musicians, especially the strings which demonstrated a wonderful delicacy of feeling in the opening ‘Elégie’. The ingenious Theme and Variations finale was superbly played right through to the final notes of the brilliant Polonaise which closes the piece. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s prominent and extended solo was gracefully rendered and especially warm-toned.

Following intermission, Maazel commanded a bright, energetic and frequently dazzling account of Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, which shares musical material with the opera “Le rossignol” and which tells the story of a miraculous nightingale who, after entrancing the Emperor of China, has his place usurped by a mechanical bird, but who later returns to redeem the life of the Emperor. There were many brilliant moments, especially from the first-chair soloists. Foremost among them were those for flute and violin representing the nightingale’s florid song, which Stravinsky created to replace the original vocal line for soprano. These were exquisitely rendered by Elizabeth Rowe and, once again, Malcolm Lowe, with Rowe sounding especially impressive in the lengthy and sinuous cadenza that introduces the song itself. Thomas Rolfs’s trumpet solo, derived from the song of the fisherman, was appropriately haunting and lyrical, and John Ferrillo’s coldly fluid oboe depicted the mechanical bird very effectively.

The concert closed with a spectacular performance of Scriabin’s orgasmic, lavishly scored The Poem of Ecstasy. Maazel was in absolutely top form, his meticulous conducting drawing luminous, totally abandoned, and wonderfully dedicated playing from the BSO in a perfectly shaped account that glowed with intensity from beginning to end. The trumpets were magnificent and the strings perfectly balanced with the rest of the orchestra.

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