Prom 55: The Boston Symphony Orchestra 2/2 – Andris Nelsons/Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Carlos Simon, Stravinsky, Gershwin and Ravel

Carlos Simon
Four Black American Dances [European premiere]

Petrushka (1947 version)

Piano Concerto in F-major

La Valse

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 26 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Come dancing might well have been the watchword of this second Prom given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under their Music Director, Andris Nelsons. I came away feeling much more satisfied than after their first appearance, and not only because of the more original and coherent programming. A second day at the same venue repaid dividends too in the tighter ensemble and more committed playing, leaving any vestiges of jetlag far behind.

The composer of Four Black American Dances, Carlos Simon, was in the audience to hear a performance which delivered exactly what was on the tin: four related but contrasting studies in the importance of music for Black American communities. From the start of “Ring Shout” there were waves of percussive energy, reminiscent of Bartók in his Miraculous Mandarin mode and more than a hint of Bernstein’s West Side Story, with additional input from players clapping their hands to accentuate the rhythm. The second dance “Waltz” revealed a more softly lyrical side, longer-breathed and appropriately suave in tone, the Boston first violins displaying a commendable purity of line in their uppermost register. In the third and shortest of the dances, “Tap!”, the infectious vitality of a Latin American fiesta was well to the fore, and in the concluding “Holy Dance” there were delicious spectral glides coming from the wah-wah effects of the trombones, bundles of jazz-infused syncopations and furious keyboard effects from the three percussion players kept perpetually busy. The Boston players certainly know how to do swing.

Nelsons took a broad and expansive view of Stravinsky’s strongly narrative score Petrushka. At thirty-eight minutes, it was one of the longest I have heard live, and yet nothing ever dragged or seemed indulgent, the individual episodes delivered with care and clarity, enabling the Bostonians to do justice to the vibrancy and seemingly endless invigoration that the score inhabits. Above the cushion of sweet-toned strings the principal trumpet provided repeated lashes of incisive brilliance, the infectious ripples from the piano driving the momentum on, while the sparkling allure of the flute, the aristocratic elegance of the oboe and the full-fat nougat of the bassoon were instrumental highlights. Nelsons might have underplayed the earthiness and rusticity that others have found in this music, but there was no mistaking the brilliance and detailed characterisation of the storyline. Three examples may suffice: “The Moor’s Room” already displayed a hint of ominous menace, “The Dance of the Nursemaids” was admirably fleet-footed, “The Dance of the Coachmen” bristled with swagger and self-importance. At the point of Petrushka’s death, when he falls victim to the Moor, Stravinsky instructs the tambourine player to let his instrument fall to the floor. This was chillingly and audibly observed, and in the concluding sequence where the ghost of the puppet appears, a plaintive violin solo and wraith-like sounds from the strings accompanied the slowly falling theatrical curtain, the audience waiting for the final pizzicatos to properly register before breaking into applause.

I find it odd that Gershwin’s Piano Concerto is not given more outings. It instinctively communicates its infectious appeal to an audience. Composed just a year after his triumph with Rhapsody in Blue, it is much closer to a traditional concerto in its three-movement pattern with a central slow movement allowing for repose and reflection, together with a pulsating rondo finale. When he conducted the composer as soloist in the 1925 premiere, Walter Damrosch commented in a programme note: “George Gershwin seems to have accomplished [a] miracle…he is the prince who has taken Cinderella [jazz] by the hand and openly proclaimed her a princess to the astonished world, no doubt to the fury of her envious sisters.” It was fortunate that one of today’s staunchest champions of the work, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, was tonight’s soloist. His identification with the jazz-inflected rhythms as well as the subtle and mercurial shifts in mood was palpable. Working hand-in-glove with Nelsons, with whom he regularly maintained eye contact, he ensured maximum buoyancy and irrepressible drive. Part of the mesmerising quality in the opening Allegro came from the filigree effects obtained in clutches of notes played very close together on the keyboard in repeated patterns. There was never anything hard-edged to Thibaudet’s playing, even in the intoxicating jazz syncopations which characterise the concluding movement. Most memorable of all was his treatment of the slow movement, where he found a teasing quality to his first entry, the expression of perfect nonchalance, picking up all the vibes from the bluesy trumpet (who had much work to do) and matching the dreamy sweetness of tone in the concertmaster’s solo. This was playing of great assuredness, redolent in charm and conviction.

Ravel’s own view of his choreographic poem La Valse was clear: “It is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and of the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.” There was much to admire in Nelsons’s approach to the work as well as in the finely-detailed playing of the Boston orchestra, demonstrating its excellence in all departments. From the gentle heartbeats at the start, through a slight feeling of unease marked by the horns, the bassoon plumbing the dark and murky depths, Nelsons moved in a series of slight shudders and agogic hesitations into a growing and agonising realisation that the ground below was slowly parting company with the feet in motion. He has both a keen ear for sonorities and colour as well as a balletic sweep which brought out all the dreamy languor and dramatic contrasts from timpani, bass drum and cymbals. Mahlerian sweet sickliness coloured the textures; the horns reintroducing menace and premonitions of doom. What stopped this La Valse from being great, rather than merely good, was how Nelsons approached the final pages. The steady control never sufficiently relaxed, the cracks were not permitted to open up and reveal the terrifying chasms below. At its close this piece is much less a waltz than a frenzied bacchanal. The listener needs to feel that the world has come to an all-embracing and shattering end. This was more of a controlled explosion.

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