For its next-to-last weekend of Tanglewood concerts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in full and stellar form after small-scale Mozart works last week, tied up loose ends. Friday’s program was miscellaneous French, Saturday’s was the Russian equivalent, and Sunday’s? Tag-sale miscellany.
The Dutch violinist Janine Jansen canceled her appearance here last year, but her Friday performance of the slightly sappy Violin Concerto No. 3 by Saint-Saens proved that she was worth waiting for. Her Stradivarius instrument has a dark viola-flavored tone but also an edge that carried high notes forward. Her appealing grace and style made it fitting that conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos would kiss her hand.
The annual arrival of the increasingly appreciated Frühbeck, Spanish director emeritus of several European orchestras, signals the approaching end of the Tanglewood season. Music director James Levine would have left anyway by now, and program books no longer carry announcements of his sudden kidney surgery. “Symphonie Fantastique,” Friday’s warhorse, calls for a very large orchestra, but no stage extensions, no cast of thousands and no offstage activity — other than the chimes in the witches’ orgy. That’s what Berlioz would call chamber music.
The audience, perhaps expecting a ho-hum runthrough, was clearly delighted that this performance was spectacular — fantastic, if you will. It is often taken for granted in present times that, with this piece, Berlioz left symphonic tradition behind. Its five (instead of four) movements are connected by a fixed musical idea representing the sweetheart. When eloquently and suspensefully construed, it does not stand out but insinuates itself into each movement’s atmospheric narrative, altering its course.
Under Frühbeck, the waltz swung, full-bodied marches reflected counterparts in the later “The Damnation of Faust” and the composer’s sweetheart turned into a squealing hag as the timpani barreled along with her to the gallows, after which she was hailed as the star of the witches’ wild dance of fury. (Berlioz’s real-life marriage didn’t go much better.) This performance was one of the summer’s high spots. Who knew?
Saturday was another full-orchestra night, with all hands onstage from bass clarinet to triangle — and how well they played. André Previn doesn’t so much conduct as direct: he throws an elbow, points deftly or sweeps his baton precisely from here to there. Glinka’s rousing overture to “Ruslan and Ludmila” is a concert staple, but Khachaturian’s heavy-handed Piano Concerto, which followed, was making a Tanglewood debut. Its themes are familiar, as if they were part of a film sound track. (The concerto is, after all, from the composer of “Spartacus” and other films.)
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, best known for languid French and jazzy Gershwin repertory, intrepidly tackled this wrist-killer, plowing up the keyboard and interrupting flashy instrumental solos with obsessively repeated chords. It was the strongest musical example of “hands together.”
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 100 — which means late, when he was in top form — had its own bells and whistles. Soft balletic tunes threaded through sweeping horn melodies peppered with syncopations. It is tonal like his Classical Symphony, expansive like his third piano concerto and saucy like “Peter and the Wolf.” Koussevitzky, who during World War II sent his friend Prokofiev the paper to write this symphony on, introduced the work to America, and to Tanglewood a few years later.
Sunday brought more good conducting and solo playing, under Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Peru-born music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, who has worked himself up to a ferocious guest-conducting schedule in the United States, South America and Europe. Ravel’s “Rapsodie espagnole” was an excellent chance to show off his Spanish flair as well as a dramatically arched demonstration that it came from the composer of “Bolero.”
Bruch’s enjoyable Violin Concerto in G Minor tends to be patronized as much by performers as listeners. Pinchas Zukerman did his colleague Itzhak Perlman (who played it here last year) one better by eliminating some of that performance’s scoops and putting it forth with relative sanity.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s beloved “Sheherazade” was back. Like Friday’s Berlioz, this “symphonic suite” has a fixed musical idea but, unlike the Berlioz, the idea represents a princess telling her sultan husband exotic tales to save her life; the undulating violin theme stands alone, connecting each tale. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe again gave the stories a sweet focus, flawlessly playing up in the stratosphere range.
The big crowd and golden sunshine (which held till just after the concert) made a perfect happy ending. Can Tanglewood’s actual finale next week match it?