CAMBRIDGE — It would be hard to imagine Russian composers more different than the pair Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic presented at Sanders Theatre Thursday. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, which he completed in 1901, five years before Dmitri Shostakovich was born, is ripe and romantic, but also moody, even bluesy. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which premiered in 1937, is strident and sardonic and rife with political struggle.
The Rachmaninoff was actually born of personal struggle: The composer, disheartened by the critical failure of his First Symphony, turned to a hypnotherapist, with evident success. Local pianist George Li, 17, who played Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto with Zander and the BPO in 2008, brought to this performance a formidable technique, the ability to give Rachmaninoff’s massive chords weight without sounding ugly, and imagination. I particularly liked the way he built the concerto’s ominous opening. What I hope to hear from him in the future is a more melting tone and greater cogency in the phrasing; the first two movements went slack at times, and in the first movement, the orchestra, which played lusciously throughout, tended to cover the soloist. Li’s dazzling encores, both Rachmaninoff, were the composer’s 1938 piano transcription of his 1916 “Daisies” and his G-minor Prelude.
Shostakovich’s Fifth was written in the wake of Communist Party condemnation of his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” Seventy years later, it’s still not clear whether this noisy symphony, which found favor with the authorities, is a paean to the Soviet state or a parody of it.
Zander seemed to discover a third possibility, giving a powerful, tragic reading that made room for resistance. His strings were sleek but not astringent; his winds wailed but didn’t shriek; his brass were rich rather than raucous. He sustained tension throughout the opening Moderato, setting up the release of concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz’s wispy violin against celesta at the end. The Allegretto parody waltz was pungent but not mean-spirited; the somber Largo, with its Bruckner modalities, built to agonized climax after climax. The finale moved from hollow celebratory march to a kind of hymn in the horns and then a steady, almost triumphant D-major conclusion that evoked the D-major peroration of Mahler’s Third Symphony. It was if the people had taken back Shostakovich’s music, and all music, from the Soviet authorities and restored it to themselves.