For many conductors, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is an expression of romantic reverie. But Benjamin Zander views this often-heard work less as a virtuosic showpiece than an extension of Mozartean elegance and balance.
Thursday night at Sanders Theatre, Zander led the Boston Philharmonic in a delicate reading of the familiar concerto that yielded a fresh sense of poetic depth. Violinist Liza Ferschtman proved an equally sensitive soloist in her Boston debut.
Zander has long held a nuanced view of the concerto, but he has had difficulty finding an agreeable soloist. In his opening remarks Thursday night, he recalled that Itzhak Perlman, whom he invited to perform the concerto in the Boston Philharmonic’s opening concert in 1979, preferred the more popular romantic reading. And Stefan Jackiw, a frequent collaborator of Zander, had his own vision of the concerto that fell somewhere between exuberance and fine control.
But with Ferschtman, Zander found a simpatico partner. The Dutch violinist possesses a crisp and tastefully understated technique. Throughout her performance, her tone had a silvery radiance that blended gracefully with the chamber-like orchestral accompaniment.
“Following Zander’s lead, Ferschtman unfolded the music with an urgency that never felt forced. If anything, the ebullient passages and sudden key changes in Beethoven’s beloved score were all the more surprising when heard in this more reverential style. “
Zander took the first movement quickly, avoiding the wide expressive shifts in tempo that have become standard. Yet this performance never felt stuffy or rigid, and Ferschtman rendered her runs and arpeggios with gentle rubato, each line flowering into gleaming high notes. The development section carried just enough weight and darkness to make for a fine contrast between sections.
Ferschtman offered a rare treat in performing Beethoven’s own cadenza, originally intended for his little-heard piano version. There, her quadruple stops and scale figures unfolded into a delightful march, played searchingly as timpanist Edward Meltzer offered subtle support.
In the second movement, Ferschtman’s phrases came off as softly woven complements to the orchestral theme. The Rondo moved with propulsive energy without her figures taking on the rough edge of tone so often heard. Ferschtman, however, brought the heat in the bristly passages of the final cadenza–here by Fritz Kreisler–before Zander and the orchestra continued the intensity into the bold conclusion. For this expert duo, Beethoven’s concerto was ultimately an exploration of intimacy, poise, and grandeur.
For an encore, Ferschtman offered a buoyant rendition of Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice.
After intermission, Zander led the orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The composer’s final work remains attractive for its balletic flair, sweeping melodies, and thoroughly Russian heft.
Zander treated the score as if it were a concerto for orchestra, drawing attention to each dynamic shift in color and texture without sacrificing momentum. The rhythms of the opening movement coursed vibrantly, carrying hulking power even in the brisk tempo. The central section offered a lyrical departure as saxophonist Phillip Staudlin floated a glowing melody that meshed with the English horn and oboe lines.
The brass calls brought robust intensity to the second movement, and Zander rendered the ensuing waltz in a brisk, Viennese lilt that still allowed for the brief violin and viola solos to unfold freely. He also mined pathos from the sighing wind motives that pepper the final movement before delving into the macabre dance that followed. The music built into bright fanfares that transformed smoothly into the string figures in movement’s middle section. The “Dies Irae” quotation brought a satisfying resolve as Zander called upon the brass and percussion the to unleash torrents in the final rousing bars.