Opening night, bass-baritone David Cushing, impressive in BLO's extraordinary version of Peter Maxwell Davies's The Lighthouse, was under the weather, so, as the slimy music teacher Don Basilio, he didn't sing Rossini's second-greatest comic aria, "La calunia" ("calumny"), in which he advises Dr. Bartolo to slander his rival. Cushing, with his resonant low notes, could probably have "talked" the aria and we would still have enjoyed it. Like much else in this Barber, it was sorely missed.
"One of the best performances I ever hated"—that's what I wrote about Christoph Eschenbach's Mahler Fifth Symphony with the BSO back in 2000. I haven't been a fan of his. Self-conscious, mannered manipulations of rhythm and dynamics are not my idea of great musicianship, though I have to admit he can get an orchestra to sound good. So it was a delightful surprise that his recent BSO French program, Berlioz and Ravel, delivered not only good playing — the BSO in full bloom! — but compelling music-making.
For the second time this season, a Berlioz overture knocked my socks off. And by an odd coincidence, the Roman Carnival Overture that Ludovic Morlot led last fall uses music from the opera Benvenuto Cellini, whose crackling overture Eschenbach conducted. And both conductors divided the string sections in the way that James Levine tried to establish; so, since first and second violins have different things to play, we could actually hear the complex nature of Berlioz's inventive orchestrations. The brass was particularly resplendent, and John Ferrillo's oboe solo made a noble impression.
Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, a BSO specialty, combined precision with intensity. The silky, sweeping waltz had a controlled, delicate rubato. Eschenbach seemed to lose the thread in the slowly spun-out Scene in the Country, but the movement began and ended beautifully with Richard Sheena's hauntingly pastoral English horn. Things picked up again with the narrative grotesquerie of the March to the Scaffold (the hero dreams he's being executed for murdering his beloved) and the maniacal Dream of a Witches' Sabbath, in which we were surrounded by the sinister tapping of violins from both sides of the stage.
Coming between the Berlioz pieces was Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, with its snap-of-the-whip opening, its louche languor, and jazzy "blue" chords. The orchestra was having a sensual field day. And there in the center of it all was the marvelous young French pianist Cédric Tiberghien, with his exquisite delicacy of color and touch and hypnotic sense of line, as if he were coaxing the notes out of the keyboard. It's been a while since the BSO has given us such imaginative playing from a guest pianist —ravishing enough for the audience to demand an encore: the nuanced dream world of Ravel's Oiseaux tristes (from Miroirs) in a continuous slow whisper.
Magical keyboard playing took place again during Boston Baroque's recent Mozart evening. One of Mozart's most enchanting works, his Concerto in E flat for Two Pianos, K. 365, was taken on by the celebrated Mozart player and editor Robert Levin and his wife Ya-fei Chuang. But instead of piano, they were using the piano's predecessor, the fortepiano, the instrument that superseded the harpsichord with its increased possibilities for dynamics. Fortepianos have their own sound because the hammers that strike the inner strings are covered not with felt but with leather, and produce a more clipped, dampered tone than the modern pianoforte.