Charles Dutoit has become a familiar figure on the Symphony Hall podium over the past few years, guest-conducting the BSO in everything from Liszt and Elgar to Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Penderecki. On Friday, filling in for the originally scheduled Lorin Maazel, he led a program of Glinka, Rachmaninoff, and Berlioz, works written a century apart but hardly sounding it.
The Overture to Glinka’s 1842 opera “Ruslan and Ludmila” is a five-minute firebird in miniature sonata form with a whole-tone scale near the end. Dutoit doesn’t blaze through it like, say, Valery Gergiev, but he had the orchestra sounding bright, alert, and crisp.
Rachmaninoff’s 1934 “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” is actually a set of variations on the 24th and last of Paganini’s “Caprices” for solo violin, a theme the composer immerses in jazzy blues and Russian Orthodox chant. The solo pianist does some demonic fiddling on the keyboard, and in Variation No. 7, Rachmaninoff introduces the plainchant setting of the “Dies irae” from the Mass for the Dead. Dutoit’s soloist, Tashkent-born Behzod Abduraimov, was in command from the first note, setting off infernal explosions in No. 8 and in No. 10, where the “Dies irae” goes Broadway, radiating moonlight in No. 11, essaying an elegant minuet in No. 12, displaying fabulously fleet passagework in No. 15, and waxing both poetic and personal in the lushly romantic No. 18. Apart from Nos. 10 and 13, where the orchestral fireworks were overebullient, Dutoit conducted with sympathetic restraint.
It was all of 30 years ago that Dutoit made his recording of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Never rushed or hysterical, this reading mines tension and passion from the composer’s kinetic rhythms, keeping everything in balance and not slighting the inner strings.
Friday’s performance was conceived along the same lines. As in 1984, Dutoit observed the repeat in the first movement but not the one in the fourth, and he eschewed the creamy cornet parts that Berlioz later added to “A Ball.” That waltz movement nonetheless swirled with a delicious lilt, and the “March to the Scaffold” would have sent a chill down the spine of Madame Defarge. The highlight was the “Scene in the Country,” from the beautifully modulated opening “ranz des vaches” duet between Robert Sheena’s English horn and Keisuke Wakao’s offstage oboe to the equally well gauged closing English horn answered only by the thunder of four timpanists. The “Dies irae” turned up here as well, in the concluding “Witches’ Sabbath,” where Dutoit made it seem that the devil really does have all the best tunes.