Loved these but not those

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 8, 2009

I have knowledgeable, sophisticated friends who think Gergiev is a fraud. One of them said to me before the concert: "I think he's a terrible conductor, and I'm here to learn what makes him terrible." By the end of this brilliant evening, I was wondering whether my friend had found any evidence to support his opinion.

Frequent Boston Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Charles Dutoit — the Philadelphia Orchestra's new music director, and the leader of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra — led a delightful program that included more Prokofiev: the Violin Concerto No. 2, which was bookended by Ravel's enchanting Mother Goose Suite and Stravinsky's sumptuous original 1911 orchestration of his ballet Petrushka. Dutoit had better luck than Gergiev with his young soloist, Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili. Still in her 20s, she is an elegant and impassioned virtuoso, and she gave Prokofiev's big tunes full force without wallowing, playing them with invigorating momentum. The bravura passages were dazzling without seeming show-offy. She never cracked a smile until the concerto was over, and then it was a beaut. Even without the usual violinist's dramatic lunges and gazes heavenward, she still got a thunderous ovation and countless curtain calls. Dutoit and the orchestra stuck with her, and the playing here, as in the exquisite Ravel and the micro-/macrocosmic Stravinsky (all the world's a Shrovetide Fair), scintillated.

Now 61, Murray Perahia has suffered over the years from physical problems, especially with his right thumb. The Celebrity Series of Boston brought him back to Symphony Hall — perhaps too large a venue for his current debilitated condition — and his many fans were there to give him a warm welcome and unqualified support. But his playing struck few sparks. The ambitious but conservative program included Bach's First Partita, Mozart's F-major Sonata, which has the most sublimely beautiful of his sonata slow movements, Beethoven's Appassionata, and (after intermission) Brahms's expansive Variations on a Theme by Handel. With all of these Perahia's dynamic level remained pretty static — nothing was especially quiet, and when he tried for big volume, his technique went to pieces. None of these great works emerged with a particular profile. Everything had a kind of generic feel, careful, without his former spontaneity, and with nothing either technically dazzling or emotionally or intellectually probing. By the end of the Beethoven, he seemed exhausted, though some of the Brahms variations, especially the most Brahms-like, had more of the qualities of tenderness and understated elegance people love in Perahia. Despite the warmth of the ovation, he announced (barely audibly) only one encore, a Schubert impromptu that didn't sound very impromptu.

What a peculiar artist British tenor Ian Bostridge proved to be in his Celebrity Series recital debut! Serious, musical, and refined, he and his accompanist, the serious, musical, and refined British pianist Julius Drake, presented a program of 20 Schubert songs connected mainly by theme and mood (no song cycles). "He's my god!" a friend confessed to me before the concert. But I wasn't completely won over. For one thing, a technical problem at Jordan Hall kept the house lights out, so it was impossible to read either the poems or their translations — and German lieder are all about how music expands or colors the words. Unless you were fluent in German and could distinguish every syllable (and Bostridge's diction didn't provide full cooperation), one of the major reasons to hear lieder was lost. (Of course, the house lights could have been kept all the way up during the concert, but I suppose the dramatic effect of singer and pianist and spotlight would have been diminished.)

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