The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s tradition with French music runs both wide and deep, though the actual repertoire through which that tradition is routinely showcased can sometimes seem narrower. Michael Steinberg captured this spirit when, writing as the Globe’s classical music critic, he once recalled living in New York in the 1950s and imagining Symphony Hall “as the scene of a more or less perpetual performance of the Berlioz ‘Symphonie Fantastique,’ relieved now and again by ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ and ‘La Mer.’ ”
Of these three iconic French works, it’s “Daphnis” that has glided to the front spot in recent BSO seasons, with Ravel’s complete ballet or the Second Suite returning almost yearly to Symphony Hall or Tanglewood. BSO conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink is back this week on the BSO podium, and on Thursday he led the complete ballet score as the culmination of his all-Ravel program.
There was plenty to appreciate in this organically paced, virtuosically dispatched performance, including the flute solos of Elizabeth Rowe and the stellar work of the entire flute section, the supple oboe playing of John Ferrillo, and the well-judged singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. But frequency of performance can cut both ways, as one remembers all too well what this orchestra can do with this music. If we hold the BSO to its own lofty standards in one of its signature works, we might note that in recent renditions past, the strings have played with more lushness and luminosity than they did Thursday night, the climaxes have rung out with more tonal depth, and the score’s final pages have exploded with more unalloyed sensuality and heat.
Indeed, the native internal temperature of Haitink’s conducting at times seems cooler than this music, though Haitink’s natural grace and sense of Apollonian restraint worked to fine effect in “Shéhérazade,” sung Thursday by Susan Graham with seasoned poise. Graham sang this work on an almost identical program that opened the 2007 season under James Levine, but this performance seemed more grounded, with “The Enchanted Flute” in particular full of delicacy and a languorous beauty. The night began with a vivid if circumscribed account of “Alborada del Gracioso.”