During the last several years of uncertainty at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, no conductor has projected stability and continuity quite like Bernard Haitink. His visits are regular, his subscription weeks multiple, his rapport with the players easy to discern. Trust appears to flow in both directions when he is on the podium. There is an openness and warmth to the sound.
When it comes to programming, contemporary music is not the first thing one associates with Haitink, but Thursday’s performance opened refreshingly with a work by a living composer, or at least a living composer’s homage to a revered predecessor.
Steven Stucky’s “Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Purcell)” takes a march, an anthem, and a canzona by Purcell played at the 1694 funeral of Mary II and transcribes them for a larger assembly of winds, brass, and percussion. It’s a kind of period-instrument revolution in reverse.
Forget the illusion of time travel, this music seems to suggest, by conjuring the past while embracing its distance from it.
The weighting and sonorities of Stucky’s orchestration charges and makes strange an otherwise familiar language. Certain moments of Purcell’s original are also purposefully blurred here, as if to remind us we are looking through the other end of the telescope.
Thursday’s performance was ringing, stately, and utterly absorbing.
The rest of the evening’s program seemed like more classic Haitink: Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. What a pleasure it was to have the pianist Murray Perahia back with the BSO after an absence of more than a decade.
Perahia’s beautifully inflected Schumann on Thursday was supple in rhythm and singing in tone, full of a virtuosity placed at the service of fantasy.
And Haitink’s accompaniment had twinned qualities of sympathy and restraint, a pairing that allowed this work’s many moments of chamber music to breathe and flow.
The almost full house in Symphony Hall was clearly hoping for an encore but it was not to be.
After intermission came a deeply rewarding Brahms Fourth. As always Haitink eschewed all podium theatrics, by turns pruning the music with subtle gestures and driving it forward with a masterful sense of this work’s larger expressive arc.
The sound he drew from the orchestra had a burnished glow to it as well as a vivid transparency of detail. It seemed hardly a surprise that among those joining the applause afterward were the musicians themselves.