By Lawrence Budmen

While it was too late for Halloween, the last two movements of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (March to the Scaffold and The Witches’ Sabbath) achieved visceral impact on Saturday at the Carnival Center’s Knight Concert Hall. Michael Tilson Thomas led the New World Symphony in a thunderous performance of some of the scariest music ever written, marked by brassy power and punch and resounding percussion volleys. The Dies irae motif emerged truly macabre from the solo tuba, surrounded by the tolling of bells. 

The first three movements of Berlioz’s hallucinatory symphony were admirably restrained. Tilson Thomas’ taut direction eschewed bombast and melodramatic exaggeration. The soft opening was exquisitely pinpointed, the ensuing Allegro vigorous without being frenzied. Meltingly beautiful oboe and English horn solos channeled the pastoral aura of the Scene in the Country (third movement). 

While the conductor drew sensuous string sonorities in the imaginary ballroom of the second movement, his classically proportioned reading stressed lean precision and rigorous clarity. Bereft of overblown rhetoric, this freshly scrubbed account illuminated Berlioz’s originality and visionary zeal. Tilson Thomas’ striking realization of this orchestral warhorse emphasized Berlioz’s artistic kinship with Beethoven, a musical revolutionary that the French composer idolized. 

The concert opened with New World conducting fellow Steven Jarvi leading a frustrating performance of Bizet’s Carmen Suite that alternated between idiomatic lightness and heavy handedness. After a brilliant Prelude, Jarvi’s tepid beat tended to yield diminishing results. Some ill tuned wind playing and thin string tone found the orchestra at less than its best. 

Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos was a delightful souflee in the hands of Katia and Marielle Labeque. The Labeque sisters are the perfect piano duo, combining showbiz flair, masterful keyboard technique, and thoughtful musicality. Their brightly articulated dash and speed ignited the opening Allegro ma non troppo into a whirlwind of pianistic flight. In the Larghetto, the Labeques’ elegant phrasing and wry insouciance gracefully floated Poulenc’ s gloss on Mozartean neo-classicism. Arpeggios seemed to leap from the keyboards in the finale with a demonstration of pyrotechnical dexterity par excellence. 

Tilson Thomas commanded lush string textures and jazzy big band snap in a lithe accompaniment that perfectly dovetailed the Labeques’ stellar reading of this Gallic gem, a distinctive blend of music hall gaiety and sentimental introspection.

Copyright Sun-Sentinel


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