Tanglewood’s Boston Symphony Orchestra opened last weekend’s concerts with two highly revered, Brazilian-born musicians: Marcelo Lehninger, conductor, and Nelson Freire, pianist performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466, and the Villa-Lobos Momoprecoce, fantasy for piano and orchestra. The second half of the concert on Friday evening, July 27, featured orchestra alone performing the well known Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Ravel, as an appropriate finale to a program honoring Serge and Olga Koussevitzky in memoriam.
This concert was notable for its compellingly magnetic precision. No matter how familiar the repertoire was to even the most seasoned ears, the opening syncopation of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor can still sneak up from behind its listener with disorientation rather than stealth if tonal and rhythmic clarity is not impressed upon and brought forth. Lehninger’s solid facilitation of alternate leaning bass with clear syncopation; distinct yet delicate voicing of dissonance and sharply contrasting dynamics prepared the ground with a firm hand for the piano’s simple, balanced entrance.
What strikes the listener as individually unique about the renowned Freire’s style is his powerfully masculine precision coupled with exquisitely voiced, tonal distinction. Uncluttered by sentimentalism, his playing compels his audience to experience an emotionally charged sense of melodic lyricism through deeply passionate, underlying rhythmic restraint. He possesses a seasoned stillness in his posture and economy of movement where no energy is wasted, while every note is audibly and artfully delivered. One is reminded in the second movement that the theme is ‘an old chestnut,’ containing moments for the pianist that are both rudimentary while perilously exposed. It was in these moments that Freire especially demonstrated a sophisticated sensitivity, never taking worn material for granted.
The Villa-Lobos was the ‘meat’ of the concert, with its fiery display of open fifths, brashly squeaking piccolos, muted trumpet, and brilliant orchestral flourishes driven by an assured pulse through periodic equine passages, supporting a galloping sense of being carried along with the wind. It was also in this piece where Freire’s facility for percussive command of Latin dance rhythm was given the opportunity to really shine. Momoprecoce is largely based on the compositional material and subject matter of an earlier solo piano piece, Carnaval das crianças brasileiras, translated in English as “Brazilian Children’s Carnival.” Program annotator Zoe Kemmerling wrote, “The scenes of Crianças, originally distinct but strung together in a through-composed fashion in Momoprecoce, are the perfect embodiments of childhood memories: vivid but fleeting. … Villa-Lobos gives Momoprecoce the title fantasia, but the work actually follows an almost cinematic progression of ‘scenes.’” In that spirit, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition carried the form of the vignette into the second half and finale of the program.
According to notes by Michael Steinberg, “It was Ravel, the Frenchman, who told Koussevitsky, the Russian, about these fascinating pieces and fired his enthusiasm. The “Pictures” were quite unknown then, and Mussorgsky’s publisher… had so little faith in them that they stipulated that Ravel’s transcription be for Koussevitzky’s personal use only since there was clearly nothing in it for them. The Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures” quickly became a Koussevitzky specialty, and his frequent and brilliant performances, especially his fantastic 1930 recording with the Boston Symphony, turned the work into an indispensable repertory item. What would particularly have pleased Ravel is that the popularity of ‘his’ “Pictures at an Exhibition” led pianists to rediscover Mussorgsky’s.”
What might not have pleased Ravel so much is that his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures unfortunately became so popular it now has a reputation of being ‘done to death,’ resulting in a number of empty seats where audience members didn’t feel it necessary to stay. They missed a richly ‘furnished’ and therefore acoustically spectacular orchestral performance executed with great loving care.
With all the access we now have to any kind of music instantly, we no longer value the kind of fidelity that could even begin to match the power of a live performance of a piece of this magnitude by a world-class orchestra. Throughout the entire concert, the flute solos were exceptionally sweet, and the attack of brass impeccably clean. The woodwinds also sang with subtlety as one voice. What was truly notable was an extremely powerful cello section, providing a very rich, full-bodied bass to any string passage. And it is an easy crime to take for granted an outstanding string section, until the finale, when violins, violas, and cellos shimmered with hymn-like, Ravellian brilliance – pulsing into added bells, chimes, and brass; the effect was so transcendently breathtaking one could not help but be uplifted by the experience.