Boston Symphony Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki [Le tombeau de Couperin … Pulcinella]

Le tombeau de Couperin
Pulcinella – Suite
Debussy, orch. Büsser
Petite Suite
Symphony in C

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 23 April, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Susanna Mälkki. ©Tanja AholaSusanna Mälkki made a sparkling Boston Symphony Orchestra debut stepping in for Yuri Temirkanov who has cancelled all his North American engagements for this period. She kept to most of the advertised program, but replaced Shostakovich’s Symphony No.9 with Stravinsky’s Symphony in C.

Already well-known in Europe, Mälkki has been Music Director of Ensemble Intercontemporain since 2006, and has guest-conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw amongst many other European orchestras. Since leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the American premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone” at New York’s Lincoln Center last August, the 40-year-old Finnish conductor has been making a name for herself in the United States.

Mälkki is an energetic but highly disciplined presence. Her strong, exceptionally clear gestures elicited a lucid and penetrating account of Ravel’s orchestrated version of Le tombeau de Couperin, a work which has been in the BSO’s repertoire since Pierre Monteux led the orchestra in the 1920 American premiere. Ravel originally composed the piece as a six-movement suite for piano between 1914 and 1917 as a tribute to friends who had lost their lives in World War One.

In 1919 he orchestrated four of the movements, dropping ‘Fugue’ and ‘Toccata’. The BSO musicians more than adequately met the virtuosic demands of the score, a tour de force of instrumental effects, most notably during the briskly paced ‘Prélude’, in which principal oboe John Ferrillo displayed extraordinary suppleness and a wonderful richness of tone.

With Stravinsky’s Suite from his ballet Pulcinella, the orchestra was once again on familiar ground. Parts of the Suite received their first-ever performance in BSO concerts led by Pierre Monteux in 1922. Among the orchestra’s numerous subsequent performances of the music are ones conducted by Stravinsky himself in 1944. Under Mälkki this performance was superb at the start and got better, with Toby Oft’s cheeky trombone and Edwin Barker’s mocking double bass making the most of Stravinsky’s amusing writing in the ‘Vivo’ section.

Debussy’s Petite Suite, one of his very early works (1888) began as a piece for piano/four-hands and was colourfully recast for orchestra in 1907 by Henri Büsser at the composer’s request. Mälkki’s account was alluring without being sentimental. The first movement ‘En bateau’ came off particularly well, sounding appropriately cool and melodious; the second movement ‘Cortège’ was exhilaratingly colorful. The BSO strings produced some especially smooth and sumptuous sounds in ‘Menuet’, and the final ‘Ballet’ was splendidly vibrant.

Stravinsky began composing Symphony in C in 1938 and completed it two years later, a period during which his daughter, wife and mother died, and in which he also discovered that he had contracted tuberculosis, but nothing in its lively, neo-classical score (except perhaps the finale’s brief but brooding introduction on the bassoons) comes close to suggesting the anguish of its composer. Mälkki led a taut, incisive and vibrantly energetic account in which the BSO’s wind and brass sections had some splendid moments.

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