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A Real Barnburner

Another report from
this summer's Tanglewood Festival,


After more than four decades on the world's symphonic podiums (and an illustrious career in Hollywood before that), André Previn remains the most consistent of conductors. While Previn's music making may rarely touch exalted heights, his performances are almost always thoughtfully conceived and deeply satisfying. Now approaching his 80th birthday, Previn was in great form on 16 August 2008, leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a typical all Russian program in the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, USA.

Opening with a lively, crisply incisive account of the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla by Glinka, the Boston ensemble offered glittering orchestral colors. Even more lustrous sonorities were on display in Khachaturian's Piano Concerto in D flat, the score's first performance at Tanglewood. That is especially surprising since this keyboard showpiece was a pièce de résistance collaboration for Serge Koussevitzky and William Kapell. (Between 1943 and 1946 they played the work many times in Boston and on tour. Their recording of the Khachaturian concerto remains a classic.)

André Previn and Jean-Yves Thibaudet at Tanglewood. Photo © 2008 Hilary Scott
André Previn and Jean-Yves Thibaudet at Tanglewood. Photo © 2008 Hilary Scott

With Previn providing invigorating orchestral support, Jean-Yves Thibaudet offered the kind of fire-breathing virtuosity that brings audiences to their feet. In the outer movements Thibaudet displayed dazzling, swift finger work, his hands flying across the keys in a rapid blur -- hand crossings and all. A more poetic side of this highly gifted French pianist took wing in the hauntingly evocative Andante con anima. Thibaudet's subtly pointed phrasing and lightly elegant touch channeled sheer enchantment. Often derided as a sterile showpiece, this concerto has passed the test of time remarkably well. Khachaturian was an inspired melodist and colorful orchestrator. At lightning speed, Thibaudet and Previn gave a sensational performance of this appealing score.

Prokofiev's Symphony No 5, Op 100, the concert's finale, has long been a Previn specialty. He drew resplendent colors and spiky rhythmic thrust from the Boston players. Previn fully understands the dual polarity of Prokofiev's musical personality. The eerie undertones of the Allegro marcato second movement were given due weight. A movingly lyrical, silky rendition of the third movement Adagio was the performance's high point. The Boston strings and winds excelled in this sensuous music. Previn's energetic reading of the concluding Allegro giocoso captured the ironic wit and heroism of this vital symphonic essay.

Janine Jansen. Photo © 2008 Hilary Scott
Janine Jansen. Photo © 2008 Hilary Scott

Chilly breezes swept through the Berkshires and the vast expanse of Tanglewood on 15 August but Dutch violinist Janine Jansen (making her Boston Symphony début) brought plenty of incendiary warmth to Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No 3 in B minor, Op 61. This beautiful Gallic work is a violinist's dream. It has everything -- elegant legato lines, beguiling melodies and plenty of fireworks to test the fiddler's technical prowess. Jansen's performance was extraordinary! Spinning sweetly mellifluous melodies, exquisite pianissimos that soared heavenward, unleashing an awesome display of fiery bravura -- Jansen encompassed that and more. Saint-Saëns' double and triple stops held no terrors for her. Above all Jansen brought joyous élan to this gorgeous piece. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos was a stylish, impeccable accompanist.

The Boston Symphony has always excelled at French music, going back to the Koussevitzky and Munch years. The light, brightly hued timbres of the Saint-Saëns were prelude to a fiery version of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, Op 14 -- one of this orchestra's signature pieces. Frühbeck de Burgos chose the alternative version with a part for coronet, adding color and showmanship to the Valse movement. Lithe strings, exciting brass, vividly colorful winds and powerhouse percussion highlighted a reading that blended sultry languor and demonic pizzazz.

Frederica von Stade at Tanglewood. Photo © 2008 Hilary Scott
Frederica von Stade at Tanglewood. Photo © 2008 Hilary Scott

More French bon-bons were the tantalizing highlight of a recital by Frederica von Stade on 13 August in the wood paneled splendor of Seiji Ozawa Hall. After more than four decades gracing operatic and concert stages around the globe, Von Stade is still a model of vocal allure and class. Her voice carried with remarkable ease; with one exception, devoid of strain in the upper reaches. (Hopefully the vocal students of the Tanglewood Music Center were present taking notes. Von Stade is a great role model.) The redoubtable mezzo brought charm and bright articulation to a group of five rose songs ranging from Ned Rorem's I am Rose to Fauré's Les Roses d'Isphahan and Edith Piaf's La Vie en Rose, sung with disarming insouciance. She encapsulated the wit of two songs from Les Jardins de Paris by Marc Berthomieu (1906-1991) and the gorgeous, meltingly beautiful lyricism of two arias from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon, despite one off-center high note. Von Stade's exquisite version of La flûte enchantée from Ravel's Sheherazade made one want to hear her sing the entire cycle. With sensitive collaboration from pianist Peter Grunberg and flutist Mathieu Dufour, she concluded an evening of sheer pleasure with a lovely performance of Frank Martin's ruminative yet celebratory Trois Chants de Noël.

One of Tanglewood's largest crowds of the summer turned out on the sunny afternoon of 17 August 2008 to hear Pinchas Zukerman play Bruch's Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor, Op 26. Ever the aristocrat of the instrument, Zukerman's technique is still formidable. His thoughtfully conceived performance reached its peak in a beautifully spun Adagio. Zukerman's rich, darkly varnished tone wove a mesmerizing spell, suggesting the weightier sound of a viola. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, while an effective orchestral colorist, presided over a rough, patchy accompaniment.

Harth-Bedoya shone best in a shimmering, exotic reading of Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole. Again playing to this ensemble's Gallic penchant, the conductor elicited brassy, rousing abandon in the concluding Feria. Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade Op 35 fared less well. Despite brilliant playing, Harth-Bedoya's interpretation lacked variety and flair. Repetitive passages tended to suffer from a numbing sameness of emphasis and shape. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe's silken tone held center stage as the score's virtuosic narrator. Veteran principal cellist Jules Eskin spun molten tones of gold in his solo opportunities.

The talented fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center concluded the festival's educational component on 18 August with a concert by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under the masterful direction of Frühbeck de Burgos at Ozawa Hall. These young musicians are the crème de la crème of the world's top conservatories. The ensemble's playing was consistently superb, professional in the best sense.

Emmanuel Ax plays at Tanglewood. Photo © 2008 Hilary Scott
Emmanuel Ax plays at Tanglewood. Photo © 2008 Hilary Scott

Frühbeck de Burgos opened with a large scale, spacious traversal of Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op 28; great horn and clarinet solo turns highlighting a strong orchestral performance. Emanuel Ax (a longtime Tanglewood faculty member) was the dynamic soloist in Strauss' infrequently heard Burlesque in D minor for piano and orchestra. It is worth noting that the 1889 première of this pianistic finger breaker was given by the legendary Eugen d'Albert, a pupil of Franz Liszt. Meeting the score on its own super demanding terms, Ax balanced flawless dexterity, eloquence and flowing, singing line. In a performance of this stature, the work emerged as a neglected masterpiece. Frühbeck de Burgos' lustrous orchestral collaboration was particularly distinguished by the deep tonal compass of the ensemble's violas and cellos.

Turning to his native Spanish repertoire, the conductor gave an irresistibly vivacious account of his own flashy orchestration of Albeniz's Suite Española. With a full percussion battery (including castanets) the Aragon finale proved a real barnburner. From the brilliant opening brass fanfare, Suites 1 and 2 from Manuel de Falla's The Three Cornered Hat were played with idiomatic excitement. Frühbeck de Burgos' performance was unusually subtle, evoking gossamer orchestral colors, a kaleidoscopic cyclorama of orchestral magic!

Copyright © 12 October 2008 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA


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