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Despite somber title, BSO’s majestic program a delight

There was an elegiac aspect to the program that Boston Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Charles Dutoit led Thursday at Symphony Hall.

Maurice Ravel’s “Le tombeau de Couperin” commemorates countrymen killed in World War I. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra seems to take place in a war zone. And though Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations salutes friends who were still living, it does so nostalgically.

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There was nothing subdued about Dutoit’s interpretations, however: the Ravel sparkled, the Penderecki burned fiercely, and the Elgar was noble and clear-eyed.

Despite the title, which would suggest a visit to the grave of the great French harpsichordist, “Le tombeau de Couperin” is an upbeat homage to the Baroque dance suite. Ravel composed it as a six-movement piano solo between 1914 and 1917, then orchestrated four of the movements in 1919.

Dutoit treats this work as if it were champagne; no one is lighter, or more urbane. In the Prélude and the Rigaudon, the orchestra suggested scurrying feet that scarcely touch the ground. The jig-like Forlane was both wry and graceful; John Ferrillo’s oboe was superb throughout.

Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 is dedicated to Dutoit, and he led the first performance of it, in 2001. The three cellos converse against a martial backdrop in the orchestra, as if they were exchanging information about who has been killed or taken away. The orchestra alternates snare-drum-riddled marching, a demonic jig with spooky xylophone, and brass irruptions that seem to announce new atrocities; in the fifth of the six movements, an English horn issues a call from the beyond. Dutoit created a controlled cacophony — at time it bordered on hysteria — against which cellists Gautier Capuçon, Arto Noras, and Daniel Müller-Schott sighed, sang, murmured, , lamented, and, in the final movement, asked questions.

Elgar composed his “Enigma” Variations in 1899, naming the first variation for his wife, Alice, and the next 12 for friends, and making the last one his own. The enigma of the unidentified theme has been hotly debated; it does suggest, at least superficially, the “never” passage of “Rule, Britannia.”

Dutoit eschewed unguarded sentiment in a bright, expansive reading marked by long, arcing lines. The timpani-laden outbursts of “W.M.B.,” “Troyte,” and “G.R.S.” never clogged; “Nimrod” sacrificed pathos for power and was none the less affecting. The finale was all pomp and circumstance, Dutoit stretching Elgar’s phrases to their majestic limit. For the 35 minutes of this performance, at least, Britannia did indeed rule.

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