Since reviving his relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2002, Christoph von Dohnanyi has become one of its most regular and prized guest conductors. At 83, he exudes a rare authority on the podium and can be trusted to produce not only lucid accounts of complex pieces, but dynamic, unshowy performances of traditional repertory.
And repertory doesn’t get much more traditional than the concert he conducted on Thursday, the first of his two BSO programs this season.
On the bill were Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was not an adventurous lineup, but it was one well crafted to show off the synergetic relationship of the conductor and orchestra.
They began with a reading of the Brahms that was surprisingly nimble, and a wealth of inner detail shone through despite the music’s sonic warmth. Dohnanyi’s practice of dividing the violins, with the firsts on his left and seconds on his right, helped keep the sound airy and uncluttered. There was an unusually intimate feeling to the performance, and Dohnanyi never exaggerated the big moments, focusing instead on the span of the whole.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Making his subscription debut was French violinist Renaud Capucon, whose performance of the Sibelius was impassioned and intense yet, for me, not entirely convincing. His playing, rich with vibrato, worked best in the long-breathed melodies of the slow movement, and he executed most of the difficult runs in the finale with astonishing fluency.
But the performance had little sense of mystery, especially in the barren landscape of its opening movement, where Capucon seemed content to remain on the surface. So did Dohnanyi, who seemed to tread cautiously rather than plumb the concerto’s expressive depths. For an encore, Capucon gave a poignant account of his arrangement of the Melody from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.”
The Beethoven is not a new piece for these performers. Dohnanyi led the Fifth here in 2007 and at the opening of last year’s Tanglewood season. Thursday’s performance was a reminder of why his returns to it are so frequent. Rather than reach for novelty, his way with the Fifth is taut, forceful, and supremely well controlled.
Above all, the performance did all the little things right. Dohnanyi knows how to maintain and relax the music’s dynamic tension, how to sculpt phrases so that they have both shape and solidity, how to keep the balances in check with a large string section.
These may seem like tiny details, but they are the things that help an iconic piece like the Fifth continue to sound vital. It would be neither surprising nor unwelcome if he returned to it in the future.