Even with no new music on the program, Thursday’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert was an evening of firsts at Symphony Hall. It marked the BSO debuts of both the guest conductor, Andrew Manze, and the soloist, Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi. It also featured the first-ever BSO performances of music by Grazyna Bacewicz, a prominent 20th-century Polish composer whose music has been largely passed over in the United States. Finally, the last two movements of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “Reformation,” were bridged with a flute recitative; the composer excised it, but it has been restored in Christopher Hogwood’s 2009 critical edition of the score.
The program followed the reliable trajectory of starting small (or smaller) and getting bigger. Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra began the evening. With the English conductor burning up the podium, the strings tore into the widening figure that opens the piece. Aggressive attacks added crunch and grit to the thrumming sound, and in contrast, cellist Oliver Aldort contributed short solos in a gloriously golden tone. The misty, languid harmonies of the second movement sounded roughshod; more rehearsal of the unfamiliar piece might have been beneficial. In the finale, strongly chromatic, brash figures served as a device for a rhythmic tug of war, with brief melodic interludes.
Piemontesi, a celebrated Mozartean, has collaborated with Manze on a handful of previous occasions including a series of concerts with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra earlier this year. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 came together in an unusual marriage of styles that only served to elevate each other.
The concerto is Mozart at his most charming and witty, with many passages that recall his comic operas, and Manze and the orchestra lit a fire under the piece. Piemontesi, on the other hand, took a calm and cerebral approach. Observing him play evoked the same feeling of awe I experience when watching principal ballet dancers in action. It was evident that Piemontesi pays exacting attention to form and technique, the effort exerted by each muscle, and each passage’s relationship to its surrounding musical landscape. Still, it sounded absolutely effortless. Even in the sparkiest moments, Piemontesi landed on the notes with a light bounce. The fleet-fingeredness of the concerto didn’t transfer into the booming low end of the encore, Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat, but it glowed with unabashed sweetness and just a hint of schmaltz.
As Steven Ledbetter explained in his program note, when Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 was new, musicians complained the piece “lacked melody” and was too contrapuntally dense. Mendelssohn led one performance and apparently never did so again, dismissing it as “such juvenile juvenilia.” (He composed it the winter he turned 21.) The piece is not without flaws, but one wonders what could have been if Mendelssohn’s inner critic had not been so harsh.
Manze wielded his baton with the zeal of Luther’s legendary hammer on the church door, and the orchestra gave as good as it got from its guest conductor. A few spots, like the very beginning, could have been cleaner and more unified. However, after hearing the genteel and steady scherzo, the restored flute episode delivered with consummate elegance by Elizabeth Ostling, and the fantasia on “Ein feste Burg” that rang out with trembling joy, none could say that this performance wanted for melody.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
At Symphony Hall, April 18. Repeats April 20. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.