The last time George Cleve guest conducted the Utah Symphony, back in 1985, his work impressed me primarily for its strength and control. Well, Friday in Symphony Hall he added delicacy to that list of virtues in music of Debussy and Ravel, then went on to make Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" really sit up and bark.
The occasion was an all-French program the orchestra presented this weekend in concerts in Salt Lake and Ogden. Featured soloist, for the third time since he joined the orchestra, was principal harpist Konrad Nelson, who turned in a stunning account of Debussy's "Danses Sacree et Profane."Occasionally in the first dance his sound seemed a trifle congested. But its multihued richness was a source of wonder throughout, as was its sheer presence. That's easy to overdo in a piece this intimate. But even with a reduced string complement things were in balance right through the finale, in which Nelson delivered an impassioned performance.
Nor was he the only player to score mightily in the impressionistic first half. Witness the evocative clarinet, contrabassoon and violin solos in the "Beauty and the Beast" section of Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite, which opened the program, courtesy of, respectively, Christie Lundquist, Mitchell Morrison and concertmaster Ralph Matson.
Indeed, under Cleve's direction all five movements were notable for their unhurried delicacy, even if the charm was a mite subdued in places. Still, the "Empress of the Pagodas" sparkled, its exotic scoring emerging with unusual clarity. As did the lambent glow of "The Fairy Garden," which built to a strong finish.
Nonetheless the highlight of this concert was arguably the "Fantastique," its textures every bit as transparent as in the Debussy and Ravel pieces but at the same time subsumed in an interpretation of extraordinary brilliance and bite.
I wouldn't have called it the last word in spontaneity. Pretty clearly beforehand things had been worked out within an inch of their lives. But the effect was to place the symphony in its proper historical perspective, as moving into the realm of romantic expression without completely abandoning its classical moorings.
Thus the opening movement ("Reveries, Passions") coursed ahead boldly, yet with its various components in proportion (including the exposition repeat). Followed almost without pause by the easy lilt of the Waltz ("A Ball"), again not slow but always in balance, the two harps sailing just above the rest of the orchestra. Ditto the cornet, the inclusion of whose part - added later by the composer - lent an extra glimmer of excitement.
After that came the atmospheric "Scene in the Fields," its carefully shaded woodwind solos counterpointed with the rumblings of the low strings - here wonderfully incisive - and timpani (e.g., the ghostly thunder toward the end).
But I expect what finally pulled the audience from its seats were the last two movements, from the nasal bray of the winds in "The March to the Scaffold," here built resolutely, with sharply detonated climaxes, to the "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," in which the leering figure of the beloved mocks the hero via a nightmarish round dance.
Once again I wouldn't have minded having the bells offstage for the "Dies Irae," as the composer directs. But their immediacy was matched by the biting tubas and, at the very end, a growling array of brass and percussion.
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: The second of Colin Davis' recordings, on Philips, still tops the list of available "Symphonie Fantastiques," followed by those of Munch (RCA Victrola), Muti (EMI) and Walter (Nuovo Era) and Roger Norrington's period-instruments performance, also on EMI.
Similarly Inbal (Denon) and Dutoit (London) remain my first choices for Ravel's "Mother Goose," offering not just the suite but the complete ballet.