Stéphane Denève Returns to Boston Symphony Orchestra

United StatesUnited States  Ravel, Stravinsky, Shostakovich: Peter Serkin (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (guest conductor), Symphony Hall, Boston, 18.2.2012 (KH)

Ravel: Ma mère l’oye Suite
: Concerto for Piano and Winds
: Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Op. 47

In April of 2011 Stéphane Denève made his first appearance on the podium in Boston’s Symphony Hall, for a concert which included the Roussel Third Symphony (a Boston Symphony Orchestra commission, back in the day) and Ravel’s La valse. That concert was such a success – I nearly wrote, “such a smash success” – that hopes were high that Denève might return.

Returned he has, and in yet greater strength.

In Ravel’s Mother Goose suite (which the program notes misgauge, I think, in claiming that the score “risks slightness of substance”) the orchestra and Denève brought out both the charm of the music’s bright colors and its finely drawn textures. Before now I have had occasion to remark on the BSO’s string choir, and the glowing warmth of “Le jardin féerique” hinted at glories to come later in the concert (without overplaying the fairy tale).

Peter Serkin is not one of your “spotlight” pianists; for one thing, the literature which engages him is not the great body of Romantic warhorses which we all live to hear, by an army of young talent at the ready, keen to make names for themselves. I’ve heard Serkin live in Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Wuorinen’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Second Piano Quintet, Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, and Berg’s Kammerkonzert. So you knew to expect both a deep sympathy with the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds, and technique to burn. If modern music is your thing, you know you are in for a treat with Serkin.

And it was a charming thought to program this concerto, which Stravinsky wrote at about the same time that Koussevitsky was being engaged at the Boston Symphony, and which as a result enjoyed its American première here with the composer at the piano.

Here we had musical forces – soloist, band, and conductor – who brought to Stravinsky’s score a respectful precision and readiness to enjoy the good humor of the antic “wrong-note” chorales, the ebullient high spirits of the toccata elements, and the long arc and lyrical warmth of the Largo second movement. Increasingly apparent was the degree to which the musicians, on a simple level, enjoyed Denève’s company. Stravinsky’s marvellously angular Concerto was a perfect foil to the perfumed garden of the Ravel, and the Shostakovich symphony, something else entirely.

Shostakovich made the difficult but ultimately wise decision to withdraw his Fourth Symphony from rehearsal at the Leningrad Philharmonic; while conductor Fritz Stiedry (who would leave Leningrad for the United States in 1937) did not wish to back out of his agreement to lead the symphony, his increasing nervousness was apparent. If Pravda had officially taken Shostakovich to task for The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District – and it had – then to sound the Fourth Symphony in public would have invited nothing short of a firestorm.

Shostakovich’s downfall was sharp, and out in the open: Moscow made a point of showing the Soviet artistic community that even such an apparent Communist Party favorite as Shostakovich (whose Second and Third Symphonies concluded with choral settings of, frankly, artistically embarrassing texts of Party-line tripe) was not immune to humiliation and reprimand. For that very reason, the première of his Fifth Symphony was a landmark for the Leningrad cultural community. The symphony was seen among his peers as a magisterial artistic “answer” to the sinister bureaucratic bullying, and is reflected in the fact that the Grand Hall of the Philharmonic rang with fully half an hour’s applause at the end.

The heart of the symphony bearing that almost insupportable burden is the 13-minute Largo third movement, and Denève and the Boston strings were a musical furnace. The heat did not let up, even in apparent pauses for two trios: an exquisite one for two flutes and harp, and a second in which Bill Hudgins’s clarinet in a high register is accompanied by a pair of flutes in their breathy lower range.

Op. 46, immediately preceding the Fifth Symphony, is a set of four Romances on Pushkin poems. The first of the four is a setting of “Renaissance”: a canvas painted by a genius is over-drawn by “an artist-barbarian” (“Художник-варвар”) — the implicit reference is the Imperial censors of the Tsarist epoch. Time passes, the “alien colors” fall from the original canvas, and the artist’s unmarred genius is revealed to later generations. Thus the illusions vanish from the poet’s tormented soul, and there appear to him visions of innocent times (“чистых дней,” literally clean days”). There were good reasons why Shostakovich left this piece on the shelf: to compose a setting for such a poem at such a time was a bold statement of artistic freedom, but to publish it at such a time would have been a reckless invitation for trouble.

On one layer, the finale to the Fifth Symphony takes guideposts from that Pushkin Romance. The first four notes of the unison brass are the same notes which are first sung in the Op. 46, setting the words “Художник-варвар” — “the meddling bureaucratic barbarian.” In the symphony, this theme becomes the subject of a musical tempest opening the movement, and Denève took much of this passage at a tempo notched slightly higher than one is used to — very nicely gauged, not only because the orchestra could keep pace with him, but because the effect did not violate the marking Allegro ma non troppo. It was fast, and one’s breath was near taken away, but not too fast. Later on in the movement, when the tumult has subsided, a passage of sustained calm leads to a quiet ostinato in the harp, a four-note figure and then an octave drop — this figure, too, comes straight from the shelved song, where the poet sings of “clean days.”

But what I read in the Fifth is an artist with his neck under the boot, proudly responding by doing good work, which will – he is boldly asserting – be apparent long after the meddling overlays have been effaced. Whatever meanings we may draw, it is magnificent music, and the performance last night was utterly luminous, drawing the hall to its feet. Here in Boston, we should be glad to have Maestro Denève return regularly.

Karl Henning