James Levine left town before Thanksgiving. In his absence, one of the BSO’s favorite guest conductors, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, returned for two programs: a mixed bag of German and Russian music on Thanksgiving weekend, and the following week music from his native Spain. I was disappointed to see that he had returned the BSO to the “traditional” 20th-century seating, with first and second violins bunched on the conductor’s left, as opposed to the antiphonal (and more authentic) seating that Levine has brought, with the seconds on the conductor’s right. The orchestral texture seemed a little muddy, especially in the Schumann (Third Symphony) and the Rachmaninov (Fourth Piano Concerto).
The Schumann lacked the syncopated hair-trigger rhythmic spring of its very best performances, especially in the Lebhaft (“Lively”) first movement. Rachmaninov’s Fourth isn’t nearly as well known or as often played as his Second or Third — dryer, it avoids those lush romantic melodies. But on Rachmaninov’s own recording, the tunes are insinuating. Frühbeck’s soloist, Yefim Bronfman, alternated between industrial-strength brilliance and silvery delicacy, but the piano never sang. The high point of the program was the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, eloquent in its evocation of nocturnal magic, with fluttering piccolo and flute turning into Stravinsky’s flame-feathered mythic bird and bassoon and horn evoking nightfall.
The Spanish program was more satisfying. It began with Frühbeck’s own sumptuous orchestral arrangement of five of the seven regional movements of Isaac Albéniz’s musical travelogue for piano, Suite española. Frühbeck’s dazzling palette mixes castanets and tambourine, bells and chimes. Elizabeth Ostling’s flute solo in the Granada section was a perfect picture-postcard moment. Then the celebrated guitar master Pepe Romero, in his BSO debut, played the central role in Joaquín Rodrigo’s seductive and nostalgic Concierto de Aranjuez. The slow movement has one of the most haunting of Spanish melodies, and both Romero and cellist Jules Eskin, who shares that melody, aroused and eased one’s sense of longing. (Benjamin Zander began his Boston Philharmonic season this year leading American guitar virtuosa Sharon Isbin in this concerto, and their performance was more impressive than soulful.)
Romero returned with the BSO premiere of the four shortest of the six movements of a piece written for him, Lorenzo Palomo’s 1995 Nocturnos de Andalucía. Composed nearly a century after the Albéniz pieces and more than half a century after the Rodrigo, it’s still a parade of Spanish clichés. Palomo has also heard Stravinsky, and when he wants to get edgy, we’re briefly back in the shocking (that is, shocking for 1913) sound world of Le sacre du printemps. We can be grateful to Frühbeck for not playing all six movements.
He closed with something more authentic: two suites from Manuel de Falla’s comic ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. This was marvelously played, but it had less of the visceral exuberance of 25-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s performance of the complete score with the BSO at Tanglewood last summer.