The first thing that caught my eye Wednesday night was the sheer size of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; they took up every inch of free space atop the Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall. So when the first note from Hector Berlioz’s Overture to Benvenuto Cellini rang out, the sound enveloped the hall, inserting itself into every nook and cranny.

Cédric Tiberghien, © Benjamin Ealovega
Cédric Tiberghien,
© Benjamin Ealovega

Berlioz’s Overture was a rousing introduction to the evening’s performance. Keeping pace with the excited tempo, conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the BSO never wavered. And with such musical variation embedded in the score, it’s easy for any listener to get swallowed up in the sound. But one look at Eschenbach, lively and animated at the podium, gave away all hints as to what was going on when and where. From the bombastic brass section to the pomp and circumstance of the timpani to the pizzicato in the cellos and basses, Eschenbach never skipped a beat.

Performing works by two great French masters, Hector Berlioz and Maurice Ravel, the BSO performed with sparkling clarity. Both Berlioz and Ravel have a huge variety of musical flavors embedded in their scores, and the BSO delivered each character and theme with relentless enthusiasm, particularly in the last piece, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

A programmatic symphony in five movements, the Symphonie Fantastique is built around one central idea called the idée fixe, a musical motif that represents the hero’s haunting love. Recalled in all five movements, the idée fixe was most apparent in its distorted form in the final movement,‘Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat’ (‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’). Here, the once beloved melody is masked by the nasal, squeaky sound of the E flat clarinet and eerie-sounding trills that parallel the wretched dance tunes being played in the accompanying winds and strings. Combined with bells, a booming percussion and the quick tapping of bows on strings (to sound like the skeletons of witches dancing), the final movement was hellish.

On the other hand, in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, the BSO swept us all up in a whirlwind of fun. Whether it was a hint of the blues, a whimsical, brassy tune, or a furious race to the finish line (with woodblocks imitating the clapping noise of a horse-race track), the BSO masterfully unpicked all the layers of Ravel’s clever orchestration.

As if the BSO did not shine bright enough on their own, Cédric Tiberghien added his own joie de vivre during this concerto. Beginning with a crack of the whip, it took off at break-neck speed. Hammering notes out on the keyboard, and playing quick glissandos and racing chromatic scales, Tiberghien set the tone for this blistering first movement.

In stark contrast, the second movement (Adagio assai) was slow, breathy, and deeply Romantic. Opening with a Chopinesque melody, Tiberghien’s playing was calm and hushed, and he was gentle with the pedal, producing crisp, clean sounds. In the second half of the Adagio, the piano sparkled in the upper register as it was held up by the warm sounds of the English horn, clarinet, flute, and finally the entire orchestra. The effect was dreamlike. But as Tiberghien’s trills still hung in the air, the Presto broke through the delicate tune, hurling us all back into a fury of color and sound.

Clearly, Ravel’s Piano Concerto requires schizophrenic playing. Still, the quick transitioning did not seem to worry Tiberghien. In fact, as he played Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie as an encore, he threw his whole body into those heavy, slow-moving block chords. Just like in the second movement of the Ravel concerto, Tiberghien revealed a very nuanced performance style; allowing every chord to ring out until its very last breath, indulging himself, and the audience, in Debussy’s intricate musical palette.

Chock-full of distinct musical designs, Wednesday night’s concert required devilish discipline and a keen ear for unique orchestration. Receiving a well-deserved standing ovation, the BSO, Christoph Eschenbach and Cédric Tiberghien revived our French masters and delivered a gripping performance.

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