The program that Daniele Gatti and Orchestre National de France brought to Symphony Hall Sunday, in a Celebrity Series presentation, was familiar territory but nonetheless high-quality. Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" was followed by Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 and then, after intermission, Tchaikovsky's Symphony
Gatti's Debussy eschewed gauzy Impressionism in favor of bright colors; this was a "Prélude" from the south of France, or Italy, or Greece. The interpretation was bracing, with a sinuous flute and some magical pauses for paragraphing. I did wish everything hadn't been so uniformly sunlit.
Mozart finished his Piano Concerto No. 23 in 1786, about the same time "The Marriage of Figaro" premiered, and the concerto is a synopsis of the opera. The Allegro, suave and sweet, bustles with preparations for the marriage of Figaro and Susanna; the minor-key Adagio is the lament of the Countess, whose husband, the Count, has his eye on Susanna; the Allegro assai finale finds the quartet playing lovers' hide-and-seek, sometimes in dark corners.
Gatti's soloist, French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, did not tell this tale. His touch was pearly and delicate, but the second theme of the Allegro bordered on precious, and the Adagio, taken too quickly, didn't begin to measure Mozart's sorrow.
The Tchaikovsky was another story. Gatti's 2003 Harmonia Mundi recording with the Royal Philharmonic is soft-edged and given to frenetic climaxes. This performance could hardly have been more different. The Allegro con anima went at a steady tempo, never sluggish; instead of whipping the climaxes into a frenzy, Gatti built them the old-fashioned way, in the process creating renewed respect for Tchaikovsky's writing. Yes, there were self-indulgent ritards in the second theme, Gatti holding his left hand over his heart, but the movement never lost its shape. The Andante cantabile was slow and heroic, the solo French horn phrasing exquisitely, the winds superb throughout, the second theme again drenched in rubato, and the motto theme that runs throughout the symphony very strong.
The third-movement waltz, so often the stepchild of this symphony, was elegant and resplendent, with a chirpy trio. The motto theme of the finale was stoic but not strident, and again, powerful climaxes were achieved without hysteria. The final big E-major march went at the composer's requested Moderato assai; no faulting Gatti for that, but if he had slowed it to a triumphal crawl, the way Igor Markevitch used, to, I'd have had no complaints. This Tchaikovsky Fifth was both logical and outrageous — everything a live performance should be.
ORCHESTRE NATIONAL DE FRANCE
Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
At Symphony Hall, Sunday
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.