Friday, December 1, 2006

Da Notorious F.B.

In his recent program at Symphony Hall, conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos did not disappoint - and this coming weekend’s concert promises to be even better. The previous program was an odd amalgam of two warhorses and one wannabe – Schumann’s Rhenish symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version). Frühbeck de Burgos (from now on F.B., as in “Da Notorious F.B.”) brought a hearty vigor to the Rhenish, and a lush exoticism to the Firebird, but he couldn’t really do much for the Fourth, despite the best efforts of the brilliant Yefim Bronfman at the keyboard. Basically, the Fourth is an unfocused affair, with, as Yeats once put it, “the will doing the work of the imagination.” The themes Rachmaninoff proposes aren’t interesting enough to sustain his lengthy development, and the poor composer (who revised the work repeatedly over a period of years) eventually resorts to percussive attacks to hold our attention. F.B. must love this piece (he once recorded it), but it’s a mystery as to why, as it relentlessly resisted his best efforts to put it over. In fact I wonder at its programming; the Fourth isn’t really strong enough to stay in the repertory, and pairing it with the Firebird (in what felt like an implied nineteenth/twentieth century stand-off) felt slightly unfair – this is Rachmaninoff at low ebb vs. Stravinsky on the launch pad.

No such problems beset the Rhenish; the orchestra seemed to slip at first on the rolling deck of the first movement (Schumann’s sunny evocation of the Rhine), but quickly found its sea legs, and F.B. delivered a gorgeously hushed fourth movement (which legend has it was inspired by Cologne Cathedral). The Firebird was equally riveting. The languid magic of the introduction was hypnotic, the love theme unexpectedly tender –but it was in the slowly descending opening of the finale (in which the enchanted stone figures in the sorcerer’s garden gradually come to life) that the suite was spine-tingling.

The conductor’s next offering should be even more exciting. The BSO rarely focuses on the guitar, but Da Notorious F.B. (who’s Spanish) will be showcasing the instrument with a performance by Pepe Romero (perhaps the greatest living guitarist, shown at right) and his own arrangement of the Suite Española by Albéniz, as well as selections from Falla’s The Three-cornered Hat. Be there or be four-cornered.

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