Because of its unsurpassed suavity, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is sometimes referred to as the world's greatest French orchestra -- an assertion meant as a compliment and not without some foundation in fact.
Thus it was fascinating Saturday at the Kennedy Center to hear the orchestra play, under Seiji Ozawa, a program just about as unremittingly German as one could gather, short of an evening of nothing but the Valkyries.
It came in two great, thumping monoliths. First, there was "Also Sprach Zarathustra," that Strauss/Nietszche/and-more-recently-Kubrick vision of the salvation (if any) of 20th-century man. Then followed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, perhaps the most famous piece of German music ever written (possibly discounting "Silent Night").
The Boston Symphony's and Ozawa's way with these blockbusters (and don't misunderstand, the Beethoven is a towering masterpiece and the Strauss, in its best moments, is pretty grand, too) was fascinating.
Both peformances were, above all, well tooled. Each composition is a frequent tour vehicle of the Boston. And the orchestra knows Ozawa's ideas and he knows the orchestra's needs so completely that much of the communication Saturday seemed almost by osmosis. The conductor would go for substantial periods, especially in the Fifth, without even beating time -- indicating only departures in accents or dynamics, usually with the left arm. Detail remained, for the most part, strikingly clear, even though the concentration was, above all, on the overall contours of the music.
In some passages, in fact, the performances seemed almost too smooth for what was being played. It had the virtuoso sheen and mellowness of the finest leather -- very French, in a way, except that France doesn't have an orchestra that plays nearly so well. But what was sometimes needed in each of these Teutonic creations was a sound that was a little gutsier, and sometimes more hard-edged..
A striking example: The normally lugubrious section that follows "Zarathustra's" dazzling introductory fanfare became so mired in Ozawa's funereal tempos that it ended up being not very musical. His intent was clear: to clarify every last note in Strauss' fabulously variegated musical texture. And, in addressing this daunting challenge, Ozawa and the orchestra were spectacularly successful. The piece did pick up momentum, especially in the second half.
In the Fifth, Ozawa achieved a rare balance between the work's nervous energy and its interior logic -- doing justice to both. The slow movement was especially fluent and natural. Not a definitive interpretation, maybe, but one that was absorbing and highly sophisticated.