Romanticism’s finest dazzles at Symphony Hall

By Manasi Vydyanath

The evening opened with Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for left hand in D, one of his most turbulent pieces. Composed in 1931, it is more of an extended cadenza than a concerto; the orchestra exists merely to highlight the piano, which gives vent to tormented, virtuoso passages and desperate lyrical flights that almost threaten to tear apart the keyboard. The collaboration between pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and conductor Charles Dutoit resulted in a compelling, if fragmented, performance. Thibaudet made up in energy what he lacked in expressiveness. He brought a refreshing rhythmic vitality to the piece—with spiky chords, brilliant syncopations and glittering glissandi—but seemed to overlook its more intimate moments. He appeared reluctant to linger, to savor the unexpected sweetness of a harmonic twist, the hint of jazz and blues inflection over the filigree passagework, and the curiously colored modulations. Eager to fall upon the next series of pyrotechnics, he bypassed them and drove the work relentlessly onward. Technically, this was evident in his sparse use of rubato, his bifurcated voicing, and his frequent, brittle arpeggiation. The piece abounded in flashes of brilliance—but with very little sense of overarching continuity.

The fact that Dutoit was so eminently suited to Ravel exacerbated this situation—I’ve seldom seen a soloist and a conductor so different in their approaches to the piece. Dutoit’s passages were lustrous and almost elegiac, throwing the roiling Thibaudet into sharper relief. There was no dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, and the violent contrast between them made the piece tremendously exciting but ultimately pointless—neither side gets round to discussing anything, let alone reaching a consensus. The concerto portrays the archetypical Romantic hero in its piano part—the individual who sets himself up against the world, argues his point, and ultimately wins. He alternately dazzles, coaxes, and invites them into his world. And that was precisely what Thibaudet’s interpretation failed to convey. The piano did not convince the orchestra; it merely bellowed it down.

The piece that followed was Liszt’s Totentanz, a set of Mephistophelian variations upon the theme of Dies Irae. This piece essentially carries on from where Ravel left off. (Programmatically speaking, of course. The Totentanz—the dance of death—was composed roughly 80 years before Ravel’s concerto!) The soloist in this piece engages dialectically with death itself, and transforms it into something fiercely joyful. The very traits that stood against Thibaudet in the Ravel were his strengths in the Liszt; there was a coruscating energy to his pianism that galvanized the piece. He still rushed the introspective passagework along, but given the context of this piece, the technique was effective.

However, there were some tempo issues halfway through the fourth variation, when a thematic transformation lifts the work from the dark harmonies of death into the expansive gestures of life. Thibaudet kept pushing his passagework into ever-greater speeds, while Dutoit’s accompaniment was slow to catch on, making the orchestra seem stony and impervious. If Dutoit had begun with this tempo difference and had then accelerated quickly to match Thibaudet’s speed, he might have achieved the desired effect of contagious exuberance. But since he did not converge with the pianist quickly enough, he lost the impact of that all-important transitional moment. The audience was therefore faced with Dantean darkness that changed inexplicably to light, and the question “What caused this shift?” was left unanswered. Nevertheless, it was a mesmerizing performance; Thibaudet’s edgy clarity made every line of counterpoint—especially in the last variation—stand out in sharp, beautiful relief.

After this came Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. The Dies Irae theme figures in this piece as well, forging thematic links between the first and second parts of the program. This suite was the last work that Rachmaninov wrote, and contains elements of closure as well as rebellion. The work gets increasingly frenzied over the course of three movements. Rhythmic and melodic contractions, the pace of modulations, and textural complexity increase exponentially, as if Rachmaninov were trying to pack in everything he had ever wanted to say—before it was too late.

The piece ends with a block orchestral chord, with a single prolonged note—played by the gong—that lingers after the others have stopped. This note has been interpreted in various ways, mostly along the lines of finality and fatalism. Traditionally, the gong has been used to symbolize the passage of time. Since Rachmaninov lets it linger after his own “words” have stopped, it could be seen as his opinion that his work is intrinsically ephemeral and will cease to exist as time passes on. However, I would be inclined to see it in a different light. The gong is struck at the same time as the orchestral chord. It therefore carries within it the essence of that chord (through sympathetic vibration). So, given that the gong symbolizes time, prolonging that note could be read as a statement of his conviction that his message will endure through time. This is an encapsulation of the Romantic aesthetic that art is timeless. Dutoit surpassed himself here, simultaneously managing several different dynamic gradations, allowing instruments to flit in and out of the texture and maintaining an eloquent sense of flow.

The last piece was Ravel’s La Valse, composed in 1907. The piece starts off as an ironic parody of “civilized” fin de sicle refinement, and we hear the rustle of the grand silk robes (harps and flutes), light footsteps (glockenspiels), and the familiar, gracious themes of the famous Viennese waltzes. The tunes are familiar, but underpinned by strange, sinuous harmonies that unexpectedly resolve into the banal at the cadence points. The conductor emphasized the parody by bringing out the underlying harmonies to a greater extent than most other renditions, to wonderful effect.

As the piece progresses, however, the parody lapses into serious commentary. The caricaturist gets caught up in the world he caricatures, and the piece turns into a nightmarish attempt to use those banal themes in a “serious” work. Ravel begins actively incorporating these themes into his own idiom, finally making them indistinguishable from his own. His signature harmonic twists, meticulous orchestration and contrapuntal style appear under the breezy melodies. The harmonies and textures get more manic, more involved, and the work ends in pure chaos. If we think of Ravel himself as the protagonist of this work, it could be viewed as a great Romantic tragedy in the style of Frankenstein—the creator being consumed by the created. Once again, Dutoit brought this work out superlatively, with involved textures, dynamic inflections and perhaps the wildest descent into frenzy I’ve ever heard.

The concert showcased the aesthetic spirit of Romanticism—the unconquerable hero and the timelessness of art. It also delved into its greatest fear—being obliterated by one’s own creation. The program’s execution was in almost perfect congruence with its conception, painting the portrait of a brilliant and scintillating ideology. The first half left something to be desired, but the second half compensated by being better than could possibly be desired. Therefore, averaging out the returns, I will essay the most risky critical statement of all: The concert was superb.