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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL CONCERT REVIEW
Mussorgsky, Beethoven and Prokofiev: Radu Lupu (piano), Sakari Oramo (guest conductor), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Boston, 5.2.2011 (KH)
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain” (arr. & orch. Rimsky-Korsakov)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor, Opus 37
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6 in e-flat minor, Opus 111
“These are the witches glorifying Satan—as you can see, stark naked, barbarous and filthy.” Thus did Mussorgsky characterize one of the themes he employed in Night on Bald Mountain, a tone-poem whose overall design the composer set as a series of four sections: the witches’ assembly; the cortège of Satan; the “black mass”; and the actual “Witches’ Sabbath.” Mussorgsky cited Liszt’s Totentanz as an inspiration; an only slightly more distant model would have been the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” in the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique (a piece which Berlioz conducted in Russia, and whose score he dedicated to Czar Nicholas I). Francis Maes points out a closer model in the bacchanal of the Assyrians from the opera Judith (1861-63) by Alexander Serov. Saturday’s performance was an invigorating affair of earthy strings and searing brass, and reminded one of a night back in old Salem.
Giving a curious visual impression not unlike a silhouette of Brahms sitting at the piano, guest Radu Lupu delivered a lovely account of the Beethoven third concerto, combining a silvery smoothness of tone with an uncanny ability to project the quietest passages to the very back of the hall.
The center of the program’s gravity, though, was perforce the Prokofiev Sixth Symphony, which had not been played on a subscription concert at Symphony Hall for nearly 14 years. A piece as yet honored more in reputation than in programming, the symphony is a stunning example of Prokofiev’s genius in combining inventive form and memorable music, with an talent for the idiom of every instrument in the orchestra. The BSO responded splendidly. Robert Sheena was, as ever, wonderful on English horn, and Prokofiev gave him many gifts in this symphony, particularly the lugubre melody (doubled by the violas) in the “tick-tock” section of the development of the first movement. Once again, the entire horn section, shining particularly in the bell-like hairpin surges—a passage which, at rehearsals for the première, Moscow critic Israel Nestyev called an effect of “asthmatic wheezing”—on the dominant in the retransition to the exquisitely plaintive Moderato tune. Principal horn James Sommerville shone in all his mellifluous solos. But without question the star of the evening—by virtue of the exhilaratingly agile and long-breathed passages wherewith Prokofiev bedeviled the principal trumpet line—was Tom Rolfs, whom guest conductor Sakari Oramo first directed to take a bow at the symphony’s end.
It is a demanding behemoth of a piece, opening with what one Soviet musicologist called “scrapes in a rusted lock,” and whose generally cheerful last movement is brought up short by massive dissonant chords—artillery in sound, really—which Prokofiev told his second wife, Mira Mendelson, were “questions cast into eternity.” Sakari Oramo conducted a thrilling concert, and the orchestra responded with memorable brilliance.