Julian Rachlin is a Romantic violinist in the best sense: he has technique to burn but isn’t overly showy. His tone is pure, his intonation impeccable, and in his playing, the melodic line is—even in the busiest solo textures—given pride of place.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) returned from its winter hiatus last night with a program that picked up where much of the fall season left off: a focus on mostly underperformed music by major twentieth-century composers sandwiching a pillar of the repertoire (in this week’s concerts, it’s Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto). New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert was on the podium, and violinist Julian Rachlin made his BSO debut, replacing the indisposed Lisa Batiashvilli.
It felt right that the first notes the BSO played in 2013 came from the pen of the great French composer Henri Dutilleux. Now 96 (he’ll turn 97 on January 22nd), Dutilleux is—with the death of Elliott Carter last November—the oldest major composer yet on the scene, and his music is a Gilbert specialty. Though Dutilleux has had a long, productive association with the BSO, the ensemble had only played his orchestral masterpiece, Métaboles, once before, and that nearly 30 years ago.
And that hiatus is our loss. Métaboles is a fascinating study in timbral and textural transformation, at once severe and lucid, acerbic and lush. Cast in five connected movements, it’s a veritable mini-Concerto for Orchestra, showcasing many feats of instrumental derring-do while also providing a substantial helping of musical food for thought along the way.
Thursday’s performance was, by and large, brilliant and invigorating, notwithstanding a few passages in which the strings were drowned out by brass and wind bombast. The opening movement’s stark rhythmic figures snapped vitally and prepared a powerful contrast with the second movement’s serenely dissonant, floating string textures, while the spiky, jazzed-up third movement balanced Harlem and Paris in equal measure. In the fourth movement, the wonderfully odd combination of double bass harmonics and percussion provided a telling, if mysterious, bridge to the finale, which Mr. Gilbert and the BSO whipped up to a frenzied, cataclysmic conclusion.
Following up such a bracing work with Tchaikovsky’s popular but shallow Violin Concerto may seem a bit arbitrary on paper, but the event came off better than not. It certainly didn’t hurt to have such an engaging and convincing soloist in Mr. Rachlin, who replaced the injured Ms. Batiashvilli.
Mr. Rachlin is a Romantic violinist in the best sense: he has technique to burn but isn’t overly showy. His tone is pure, his intonation impeccable, and in his playing the melodic line is—even in the busiest solo textures—given pride of place. On top of that, he’s a good collaborator: at times on Thursday night, he and Mr. Gilbert seemed to be literally conferring at the podium as they performed.
Mr. Rachlin’s positive qualities were well on display in his performance of the Concerto, nowhere more so than in it’s symphonic first movement. While one might have preferred an interpretation that felt a bit more spontaneous and improvised, it was hard not to be won over by Mr. Rachlin’s musicality and humility. His account of the extended cadenza, especially, demonstrated a clear, dramatic conception of the musical materials, and his intonation throughout the movement was nearly flawless.
The finale allowed further demonstrations of Mr. Rachlin’s technical prowess, which—even if in this Concerto such displays don’t serve particularly meaningful musical ends—were electrifying, while the slow second movement showcased his warm tone and subtle, lyrical phrasing.
If only Mr. Gilbert and the BSO had managed a more secure accompaniment. The first movement featured plodding overemphasis of the orchestral bass and some ragged entrances, while the finale rarely felt stable (or together), rhythmically. The slow second movement was a bright spot for the orchestra, though, featuring some sweet, solo wind contributions.
After intermission, the program wheeled around to two of the twentieth century’s major war-inspired works: Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (not heard at Symphony Hall since—appallingly—February 1981) and Ravel’s La Valse.
One of last summer’s Tanglewood archival recording highlights was a scorching performance of the Symphony given by Oliver Knussen and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (TMCO) in the mid-‘90s. On Thursday, Mr. Gilbert led a performance of the piece that was rhythmically taut and ascetically driven but lacked some of the manic urgency of the TMCO account.
This proved most frustrating in the first movement, which meandered from time to time. However, the slow middle movement found a sure footing, guided in no small part by Jessica Zhou’s appropriately delicate account of the solo harp part, and the finale, with its cinematic motives and juxtaposition of unexpected formal neighbors (like the fugue that kicks off around its midpoint), was better focused.
It was Ravel’s 1920 “choreographic poem,” though, one of his several musical responses to the Great War, that proved the most haunting reading of the evening.
There are no doubt many legitimate ways to hear La Valse, many of them related to the work’s sound: after all, La Valse features one of the most sheerly spectacular orchestrations in the repertoire. But the score’s contextual subtext of a civilization spinning inexorably to its slaughter doesn’t always receive the narrative emphasis it should.
On Thursday night, the narrative focus came across with all its terrifying immediacy. Part of the reason for this owed to Mr. Gilbert’s decidedly unsentimental approach to the piece and his brisk tempos. At the same time, the BSO’s sure technical command and attention to detail allowed the work’s many moving parts to be heard. It all coalesced in the evening’s second ride towards an abyss, and this time right over the edge. After a good performance of La Valse, applauding such a nightmarish recollection should feel unsettling. Once the last crunching notes dissolved on Thursday, it did.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.