When the solo piano makes its first entrance in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, it does so on a figure familiar to every childhood piano-lesson veteran: an ascending C minor scale in both hands, one octave at a time. You can tell a lot about the performance you’re about to hear by how a soloist approaches those simple scales. On Thursday night at Symphony Hall, German pianist Martin Helmchen didn’t so much approach them as seize them, each one a vigorous declamation. We were in for a wild ride.
With music director Andris Nelsons on the podium leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Helmchen plunged into the stormy depths. His cool stage presence belied the force behind his account of the concerto. Even in more delicate passages, echoes of fury were palpable, and trilled notes had their own knife edges, sharpened to diamond grade by the acoustics of Symphony Hall. If piano keys could bruise, the 88 on stage would have been all the colors of the rainbow and then some by the end of the first movement.
Though he held the hall’s attention, this approach sacrificed some musicality, making for less coherent narrative than collection of tense, intense phrases. He often pounded the final notes of passages, briefly springing up from the bench when he did so. The slower second movement was a thing of crystalline beauty, and Helmchen exquisitely shaped the contours of both the sweet melody and twinkling backdrop to the orchestra. With those smaller sounds, the impact was much larger. In the third movement the thunder returned, culminating in a fierce, pealing coda.
The concerto was all that remained of the original scheduled subscription performance. The redoubtable Christoph von Dohnányi had been scheduled to conduct a smorgasbord of Bach, Bartók, and Janácek, but health problems caused him to withdraw. With Nelsons stepping in, the orchestra offered Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which was previously performed this season both at home and during the recent Japan tour. By this point, the musicians could probably play it in their sleep, though it’d be hard for anyone to doze through the eight-horn salvo at the end.
The orchestra was in fine, deft form through passages of immeasurable tenderness, comedic lurching, and spooky introspection. The maestro was at peak ebullience and exhilaration, arms spread wide as he sailed on the billowing updrafts of a late Romantic juggernaut. He’s found his happy place.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Saturday. 617-266-1492,www.bso.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.