Especially during its regular season, the Boston Symphony Orchestra doesn’t receive visits from the music directors of other major American orchestras all too often. Alan Gilbert was last here in 2009, just a few months before taking the reins of the New York Philharmonic. Given his thoughtful musicianship and fresh approaches to programming, it’s fortunate for Boston that he has found time to return this week while, as it turns out, Christoph Eschenbach is tending the shop back home.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
For Gilbert’s last visit he brought Ives’s remarkable Fourth Symphony with him and guided the BSO through a revelatory performance of that massive work. This week Gilbert has again built his program around a seldom spotted score, or two of them: Dutilleux’s “Métaboles” and Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” neither of which had been performed by the BSO in Symphony Hall since the 1980s. Offsetting these works are popular staples by Tchaikovsky and Ravel.
Written in the 1960s, “Métaboles” is an intriguing, shape-shifting essay for orchestra made up of five interconnected movements in which freely evolving musical ideas take root in discreet sections of the orchestra. The instrumental forces are large yet the sound remains precisely detailed, the use of color subtle yet prismatic. The BSO has a notable track record with the demanding music of this modern French composer, and Gilbert led a lucid and finely drawn if at times slightly dry account of the work on Thursday night.
After intermission came the Stravinsky symphony — a neo-classical score from the 1940s that seems to nonetheless smuggle in through the back door some of the earthier vitality of “The Rite of Spring.” Here it received a wonderfully persuasive performance, vigorous in rhythm, bold in texture, and forcefully driven from the podium. Between the two works was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with the Lithuanian-born violinist Julian Rachlin filling in for the originally scheduled soloist, Lisa Batiashvili, who withdrew due to a back injury.
Rachlin, in his BSO debut, rendered this beloved warhorse score with a powerful and streamlined technique that had the crowd instantly cheering on its feet after the final chord. Interpretively speaking, it can be a challenge for a soloist to place a distinctive stamp on such a piece, but Rachlin seemed keen to try nonetheless through a heavy, if not always convincing, use of rubato in the outer movements.
The night ended with a lilting account of Ravel’s “La Valse.” Some conductors make more of the violent undercurrents beneath Ravel’s post-World War I impressionistic tribute to the quintessential Viennese dance. Gilbert kept his account audibly linked to the 19th-century world Ravel was fondly surveying, from the far end of a one-way street.