Two landmark scores from the repertory of the Ballets Russes sandwiched Thursday night’s concert at Symphony Hall: Debussy’s Jeux and Stravinsky’s Petrushka (in its original 1913 version). In between, the Boston Symphony, Renée Fleming and François-Xavier Roth performed the American première of Henri Dutilleux’s final version of Le Temps l'horloge and three selections from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. Unlike most sandwiches, the bread turned out to be more interesting than the filling.

Renée Fleming © Andrew Eccles | Decca
Renée Fleming
© Andrew Eccles | Decca
Jeux is a difficult piece to pull off. Rhythmically and melodically adventurous and fragmented, it’s like a series of water droplets briefly illuminated then evaporated by a sun flashing in a sky of scudding clouds. Unlike Petrushka, as a concert piece Debussy’s Poème dansé is more poem than dance and proves to be one of his most evocative and prismatic scores. It conjures a sense of mystery, even foreboding, suggesting none of the specificity of the menage à trois-masquerading-as-pastoral scenario concocted by Diaghilev and Nijinsky. Debussy spoke vaguely of an inner pulse which allows Jeux’s melodic fragments to flow and dissolve into each other. For the most part Roth, conducting throughout the evening without a baton, found that pulse and maintained it answering eloquently and expressively the challenges of this difficult score.

Roth’s seating paid dividends as well, lightening the texture and lending clarity both here and throughout the evening. First and second violins were divided antiphonally; cellos were seated in a line next to each other in front and to his left; double basses lined up against the wall behind the first violins while the harps occupied the double basses’ usual perch by the right wall.

Though the BSO co-comissioned Le Temps l'horloge as part of its 125th anniversary celebrations, the piece was unfinished when Renée Fleming and James Levine premiered it in 2007. Dutilleux did not have the piece in its final form until 2009, adding a brief orchestral interlude and the final song setting. Lasting just under 15 minutes, the four songs and interlude recapitulate in concentrated forms his preoccupation with the intertwining of the inexorable tick-tock of time with memory and loss set in his typical coloristic and pointillistic style. The composer set two poems by his Radio France colleague and friend, poet and playwright Jean Tardieu, and found inspiration for the orchestral interlude in a fourth, Futur antérieur. Surrealist Robert Desnos’s Le dernier poème and Baudelaire’s Envirez-vous (Get Drunk) provided the texts for the final two songs.

Renée Fleming was uncharacteristically underpowered and subdued. She seemed to be struggling with an indisposition, carefully husbanding her resources and skirting the inaudible. Even her usual impeccable diction was off. The voice itself still retains its plush sheen, particularly in her increasingly resonant lower register, but excursions above the staff betrayed effort and resulted frayed, most audibly in the sweeping intervals of the second song, Le Masque. Under normal circumstances, Envirez-vous would play to Fleming’s strengths. However, Baudelaire’s passionate exhortations to intoxicate oneself were severely muted. At the end, Fleming put her hand to her chest just below her throat and shot a look of relief at the audience.

Her voice sounded fuller and freer after intermission, when she offered three of Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. The opening lullaby was hushed and comforting, performed with seamless legato. Unfortunately, Baïlèro suffered from a similar hushed rendering which muffled the contrast Canteloube wanted having marked the second line of each verse as “fading to nothing”, “a far distant echo”. The buoyant bourrée, Malurous qu’o uno fenno, ended things in lively, mocking fashion as it celebrated a woman who has “managed to stay free” from men. After her defiant concluding exclamation, Fleming bounced on the balls of her feet in time to the music, indulged in a few discreet double fist pumps, then threw her head back with a big smile.

Petrushka was the highlight of the evening, a riot of color, rhythm, and mordant humor. Anyone familiar with Pierre Monteux’s way with this score would have recognized a comparable clarity, precision, and verve. The words “toe-tapping” and “Stravinsky” might strike some as strange bedfellows, but this performance was so vivid and dance-inflected that choreography was superfluous. Vitas Baksys (piano), Elizabeth Rowe (flute), and Thomas Rolf (trumpet) were outstanding.

Roth interrupted his solo bow to acknowledge the passing of his great friend, Pierre Boulez saying, “he was here with us tonight in Boston”. If so, I would like to think he was sporting the same shirtsleeves and sunglasses worn in the YouTube video of him conducting Jeux and applauding as enthusiastically as the rest of us.