Schubert and Saint-Saens * * *
CBSO at Symphony Hall
Review by Norman Stinchcombe
Schumann famously rhapsodized about the heavenly length of Schubert’s ninth symphony – but an uninspired performance can make it seem hellishly long.
Douglas Boyd, oboist turned conductor, avoided making the symphony seem interminable but this was a performance-in-the-making rather than the finished article.
There were many beautiful moments: the opening mist-shrouded horn call, Elspeth Dutch in top form; delicate woodwind traceries, oboe outstanding here, and a rousing coda. But it lacked a vision of the work as a whole, the golden thread which runs through the symphony and that only the finest performances reveal.
Boyd opted for a stripped-down chamber-sized CBSO and it seemed we were to have a "historically-informed" performance, vibrato restrained, heavy accents and choppy phrasing. But in the andante Boyd relaxed and allowed some magical string and woodwind interchanges before returning to the straitjacket phrasing. It was as if the conductor were ashamed of his momentary lapse into romantic rhetoric.
Boyd was principal oboe in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe which recorded the Beethoven symphonies on a hugely overrated set under Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
This certainly showed in Boyd’s conducting of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture which bore all the worst aspects of Harnoncourt’s style, with sonority and depth sacrificed to speed and clarity. The work was stripped of its drama and became quick, slick and soulless.
No reservation about Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No.1 with Steven Isserlis an inspired soloist living and breathing every note of the work. This may not be great music but it’s charming and well crafted and Saint-Saens has a knack of always finding memorable melodies. It’s a tribute to Isserlis and his accompanists that they made it feel like great music while the performance lasted.