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There were no fanfares for Andris Nelsons in Symphony Hall Thursday night, unless you count the occasional trombone blast from Dmitri Shostakovich.
It was all business as Nelsons strode onstage, bowed briefly, and faced the Boston Symphony Orchestra to begin his second season as the fabled ensemble’s music director. The audience, which appeared ready to mark the occasion with a long, welcoming round of applause, had to settle down fast and listen.
Expectations had also been defied by Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 at its 1945 Leningrad premiere, when an audience looking for a colossal successor to this composer’s massive wartime symphonies, Nos. 7 (“Leningrad”) and 8, were greeted with drily comic, neoclassical music instead.
On Thursday night, Shostakovich’s wry little invention seemed the ideal piece for a modest maestro seemingly determined to slip into the new season through the back door.
Not that he held his horses in the performance. Following his steady but driving beat, the BSO musicians showed they could play like the wind in crisp phrases and with flashes of orchestral color. A standout in the scintillating first movement was Cynthia Myers’ piccolo, full-toned and expressive even at top speed. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and clarinetist William R. Hudgins also contributed stylish solos.
Hudgins led the way in the slower second movement with a lean, lonely sound, answered by soft woodwind counterpoint and swooping muted strings. Nelsons’ direction was alert to every moment of the music, and silvery lines from Meyers’ piccolo completed the spell at the end.
The symphony concluded with three linked movements: a fleet scherzo in which each witty twist was duly noted by the players as it flew by; a Largo whose expressive melody floated high up on Richard Svoboda’s bassoon, punctuated by the aforementioned trombone (and tuba) exclamations; and an Allegretto so chromatic and furtive it hardly sounded like a finale, at least until Nelsons accelerated into the furious coda and abrupt ending.
And with that, the spotlight swung from an exercise in modesty to one of the grandest works in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by one of its most illustrious exponents, pianist Evgeny Kissin.
Beginning with the work’s grand opening theme and continuing through other lyrical moments in the first movement, pianist and conductor tended to go their own ways—Kissin placing a firm rhythmic foundation under his playing and Nelsons preferring to pursue details and inflections with the orchestra while rhythms drifted a bit.
But if this was not the most coordinated of performances, it offered moments of inspired interaction between the soloist and players in the orchestra—a gentle staccato dialogue for piano and woodwinds at the close of the introduction comes to mind—and of course some of the most impressive pianism to be heard anywhere.
Kissin’s massive, crushing fortissimos and thoughtful, poetic interludes were everything a fan of Romantic piano playing could wish for. Through artful use of the pedal, the piece’s many brilliant interlocking-hands passages sounded neither choppy nor blurred, but seamless. Fast runs were brightly articulated or buttery, as the moment demanded.
In the long cadenza near the end of the first movement, Kissin also showed he could take the long view, building an impressive musical edifice over time, so that when he swung into the coda and he and Nelsons brought the movement to an exciting close, the sense of completion was overpowering. At that point the audience threw decorum to the winds and interrupted the proceedings with loud, prolonged applause.
Once order was restored, pianist and orchestra gave a tender, nuanced account of the second movement, starting with Clint Foreman’s full-toned flute solo and Kissin’s sensitive response to it. The dizzy waltz episode was taken at a tempo that gave new meaning to the marking, Prestissimo.
The indication Allegro con fuoco (with fire) for the finale doesn’t necessarily mean fast, but this stageful of virtuosi took the movement plenty fast and gave it plenty of flickering, roaring fire too. In fact, as one looked back over the long span of this work, one was impressed at the immense variety of attack and tone color Kissin had brought to the keyboard, and the priority he always placed on expressive playing, no matter what technical challenge he was dealing with at the moment.
Of course the audience was on its feet at the end, and Kissin obliged them with an encore, Tchaikovsky’s Meditation, Op. 72, No. 5, a salon-style piece that grew unexpectedly sonorous and dramatic in the middle.
Inevitably, there were some empty seats after intermission. What the early leavers missed was an intriguing performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances that cast off bravely from the mainland of this composer’s concertos and symphonies to explore the modernist Rachmaninoff, acerbic soul brother to the Shostakovich of the (nearly contemporary) Symphony No. 9.
Perhaps owing to Rachmaninoff’s scoring, the chugging dance that opened the first movement didn’t sound quite as crisp as the corresponding place in the Shostakovich symphony. More striking was the second theme, famous for its use of a saxophone in a classical score, and rendered on alto sax Thursday by William Martin, the BSO’s associate principal clarinetist, with an extraordinary room-filling tone and subtle vibrato while astringent-sounding woodwinds curled around it.
When the violins took up the theme, Nelsons characteristically leaned back with his left hand on the podium railing and shaped the melody in the air with his batonless right hand, producing a rhythmically free, almost ecstatic performance.
The second movement, often called simply a “waltz,” is really a disjointed, dreamlike vision in which snatches of dance music drift by amid forever-modulating, never-resolving harmonies. Nelsons made the most of this feeling of disorientation, while giving full expression to the almost gaudy dream colors in Rachmaninoff’s imaginative orchestration.
Mutability was also the theme of the last movement, as Nelsons emphasized the sudden shifts from rage to languor and back again, creating a passionate enigma that was only partly resolved at the end by a few moments of Rachmaninoffian lushness and a furious windup.
Nelsons’s programs for the coming season, strongly weighted toward a few familiar Russian composers, have been accused of narrowness and conservatism in some quarters. But if he stays as brave in his interpretive choices as he was Thursday night, he may win over some of his critics.
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