Boston Symphony Orchestra/Tortelier Joshua Bell

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
The Firebird – Suite (1945)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77

Joshua Bell (violin)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 28 November, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall

Yan Pascal Tortelier. Photograph: Christian SteinerSir Andrew Davis was scheduled to guest-conduct this week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra subscription program, but he withdrew because of family illness. Yan Pascal Tortelier, making his Symphony Hall debut (he made his BSO debut at Tanglewood in 1998), took his place. There was one change of piece, the 1945 suite from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird replaced his Symphony in Three Movements.

In the Debussy, Tortelier’s highly decorative conducting style, full of karate-chop slices and huge swirling gestures, proved more distracting than efficient. Conducting from memory, Tortelier took such liberties with tempo that the work came across as forceful rather than evocative. Despite Elizabeth Rowe’s splendid solo flute, overall this Faune was strangely lacking in languor and refinement.

The 1945 version of The Firebird is the last of three concert suites arranged by the composer from the ballet’s 1909-1910 score. The 1945 version preserves the scoring from the more frequently played 1919 Suite but contains more music, restoring two scenes omitted from the 1919 version and including three short connecting ‘pantomimes’. Until these performances led by Tortelier, the BSO had not played the final compilation since 1946 when Stravinsky himself conducted it in Symphony Hall.

Tortelier’s balletic conducting style proved more effective, and he succeeded in drawing out a performance of more emotional depth. There were some splendid moments when the playing came off particularly well – the ‘Introduction’ in which the BSO musicians responded with wonderfully crisp woodwind twittering and magical string effects, the ‘Rondo’ (the Princesses’ Khorovod) with its splendid oboe solo, and the ‘Berceuse’ most effectively led by Richard Svoboda’s buoyant bassoon.

Joshua Bell. Photograph: Bill PhelpsIn Brahms’s Violin Concerto, Joshua Bell was in total command of the work’s tremendous technical difficulties. He delivered a totally mesmerizing performance in which his acrobatic virtuosity was continually on display as he perfectly balanced the work’s abundant lyrical qualities with its more exciting ones. He played his own striking cadenza, which added a gypsy-like spontaneity to the mellifluous first movement. Throughout the performance the BSO’s strings and winds gave him firm, assured support, displaying especially abundant energy in the finale. As an encore Bell played Henri Vieuxtemps’s Souvenir d’Amérique, a dazzling set of variations on “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

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