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Music Review

Boston Philharmonic unlocks Elgar’s ‘Enigma’

Benjamin Zander conducting the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday.Michael J. Lutch

CAMBRIDGE — The second program of the Boston Philharmonic’s 2016-17 season started in France and finished in England. It was a bit of a magical mystery tour: Nothing could be more enigmatic than the two French selections, and yet it was the closer, Edward Elgar’s “Variations on an Original Theme,” that’s known by the name “Enigma.” Whatever, there was no mystery about the forthright, idiomatic performances Boston Philharmonic music director Benjamin Zander led Thursday at Sanders Theatre.

Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1876 poem “L’après-midi d’un faune,” in which a faun wakes from an afternoon nap and muses on his encounter with two nymphs — or were they part of his dream? Gamboling through whole-tone runs, shifting meters and key signatures at will, reaching cadences that evaporate in a millisecond, the piece, which premiered in 1894, paved the way for modern music. Performances are often shrouded in an Impressionistic mist; Zander bathed his in bright sunshine, with fluid contributions from principal flutist Kathleen Boyd and principal oboist Jennifer Slowik.


More dreamlike still was Henri Dutilleux’s 1970 “Tout un monde lointain . . .,” a cello concerto in all but name. Its title — “A Whole Distant World . . .” — quotes a poem from Charles Baudelaire’s “Les fleurs du mal,” and each of its five movements — “Énigme,” “Regard,” “Houles,” “Miroirs,” and “Hymne” — is prefaced by a Baudelaire quotation. “Tout un monde lointain . . .” is not often programmed, but Zander knows the work, having performed it with Mstislav Rostropovich and the New England Conservatory Symphony Orchestra in 1982. His soloist Thursday, Zuill Bailey, tore into the cello part with such ferocity that he broke a string after just five minutes and had to retire briefly to replace it. That didn’t mar his performance, in which the cello seemed to be the protagonist in a noir film or novel, with the orchestra now creating suspense, now crashing in on him, now giving chase. He was particularly mesmerizing in the two slow movements. This isn’t the kind of Romantic repertoire the Boston Philharmonic is known for, but the orchestra did itself proud.

After intermission, the program crossed the Channel. William Walton’s “Scapino” Overture (1941) was inspired by a Jacques Callot engraving of the Italian commedia dell’arte-like figure who turns up in Molière’s “Les fourberies de Scapin” as a wily servant. Zander led a riotous performance in which Scapino, represented by snickering muted trumpets, seems to be hotfooting it away from trouble before stopping to try to secure a tryst for his master. Then he’s off again.


Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” appeared in 1899, the theme being followed by a variation named for his wife, Alice, then 12 more for friends, and finally one for himself. The word “Enigma” on the title page and in Elgar’s program note has puzzled listeners for more than a century, but the piece itself was enormously popular from the outset.

Zander’s reading was noble rather than nostalgic. He resisted the trend toward languishing tempos that actually began with Elgar’s own 1926 recording: The theme went at a firm Andante, as marked, and “Nimrod,” so often a dirge, was heroic. The boisterous variations — “W.M.B.,” “Troyte,” and “G.R.S.” — were loud but not muddy. (“G.R.S.” arguably depicts not organist George Robertson Sinclair but his bulldog, Dan. In this performance there was no mistaking Dan’s bark.) Numbers dedicated to women — “Ysobel,” “W.N.,” “Dorabella” — were unusually tender and delicate. Textures overall were transparent, with especially good support from the lower strings, and throughout Zander took care to make the theme audible. I could imagine a different “Enigma Variations,” but not a better one.



At Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Thursday (repeats at Jordan Hall, Saturday; Sanders Theatre, Sunday). Tickets: $25-$105. 617-236-0999, www.bostonphil.org

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.