The Boston Philharmonic’s season opener featured acclaimed pianist Alessandro Deljavan in a winning Boston debut, and conductor Benjamin Zander leading the orchestra in challenging favorites by Brahms and Bartók.
Thursday’s concert at Sanders Theatre also got a festive kickoff with Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute. Though the hall was only half full, it was a first night that lived up to musical expectations.
A prodigy by age four, the Italian pianist, now 32, performs with renowned orchestras at storied venues around the world and has made over 40 recordings. Zander had enthused about “this remarkable musician” in remarks posted to the Philharmonic’s web site, and for his honored guest, he picked the “king of piano concertos” — Brahms’s second.
Written more than two decades after the German composer’s first piano concerto had met with mixed reviews, this return to the form combines symphonic proportions and chamber music-like intimacy over four (as opposed to the piano concerto’s traditional three) lengthy movements. It also displays the pianistic grandeur and poetry that made Brahms himself a popular soloist.
“Sporting his trademark fingerless black gloves, Deljavan from the opening cadenza onward played with clarity, relentless charge and a generous ear. Instead of simply answering orchestral statements, he often completed them. “
Powerful trills and resonant left hand work, as well as tender asides, marked the opening Allegro non troppo. He began the Allegro appassionato with brooding drive before stretching into more spacious, hopeful-sounding phrases. The Andante started with preciously shaped arpeggios followed by a brilliant, bell-like lyricism. The soloist’s improvisatory delivery and bounce made Brahms’s Allegretto grazioso catchy, even at Zander’s fair clip.
Zander used brief opening remarks from the stage to prepare the audience for the generally quicker tempos he would adopt for this concerto, citing Brahms’s own indications and the often inconsistent tempos heard in past performances. The conductor’s spry pacing and push across all four movements brought excitement as well as naturalness and greater thematic cohesion. The first and second movements pumped while bass lines and the movement of inner orchestral parts remained clear. The Boston Philharmonic not only kept up, but audibly relished Zander’s direction in thick but animated counterpoint and long vibrant melodies.
In the introspective Andante, shaded dynamics in the first solo by cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer contrasted with more open projection in the second, like a character in a story reacting to altered surroundings. Right through the sparkling finale and its broad, slightly coy sashay, the director, soloist and orchestra played with a gripping unity of concept. No wonder attendees actually clapped after each movement. The crowd practically begged Deljavan for an encore, for which he selected Chopin’s tortured “Revolutionary” Etude, Opus 10, No. 12.
Zander politely asked concertgoers to hold their applause until the end of the next selection, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, and in a lengthier preface he talked with great affection about this unique work, which had its world premiere in Boston, 1944 at Symphony Hall with Serge Koussevitzky conducting.
Instead of one soloist, orchestral sections share the spotlight, often in themes and harmonies inspired by the music of Bartók’s native Hungary (which he had recently fled due to Nazi tyranny).
Zander’s relatively lighter touch for most of the five movements often let the score and musicians speak for themselves. In comparison to Zander’s driving Brahms, the Introduzione unfurled its gloomy tale patiently. The second movement’s paired woodwinds were a delight not just for Bartók’s colorful voicings, but for the players’ rendering of same: plummy bassoons, sharp oboes, bubbling clarinets and flutes curling around the strings. The central brass chorale, from Dana Oakes’s silvery lead trumpet to Takatsugu Hagiwara’s tuba, was a rich and solemn affair.
The middle movement Elegia, with flowing winds and softly pulsating strings over bass drones, explored the enclosure and mystery of the composer’s “night music” before Zander’s well-choreographed tutti explosion. The fourth movement quickened under Peggy Pearson’s playful oboe solo and the violas’ warm reading of a Hungarian song. Comically dour trombones and clipped, snarky violins hammered out Bartók’s parody of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. In the whirling final movement, seamless sectional dialogs and lucid fugal patterns led into the sanctioned applause at the evening’s close.
Perhaps because of the heavy Romantic and Modern repertoire to come, Mozart’s elegant, mercurial Magic Flute was not quote as nimble an opener as it could have been. The 80-piece ensemble’s dense chords and brawny lines tended to obscure Mozart’s motor rhythms and transparency, but it was a minor quibble given the superbness of everything else.