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MUSIC REVIEW

Haitink leads way as BSO closes season with Brahms, Schubert

The Boston Symphony Orchestra brings its Symphony Hall subscription season to a close this week with a second program led by conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink. Last week’s Haitink-led concerts paired Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Schubert’s Fifth. This week boasts a similarly spirited pairing of familiar masterworks: Brahms’s Violin Concerto and Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony.

This week’s soloist is Nikolaj Znaider, a gifted Danish violinist who, while still in his 30s, has been developing a second career as a conductor. Znaider’s most memorable local appearance was his 2010 BSO debut with a beautifully integrated performance of Elgar’s rarely heard Violin Concerto under the baton of Sir Colin Davis. One sensed a rare connection at that time between soloist, conductor, and repertoire.

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I wish I could say the same for Thursday night’s Brahms performance. This spirited and virtuosic reading had in its favor the elan and natural charisma of Znaider’s playing, expansive in gesture, clean and well-rounded in tone. (He also bravely took on the less frequently heard Heifetz-Auer first-movement cadenza.) But there was also an episodic quality to this account; when the solo line on occasion caught fire, that sense of heat was rarely sustained or directed toward creating larger expressive arcs. Under Haitink’s baton, the extended orchestral introduction had some unusual balances, with the horns all but covering the strings at a few key moments. And the relatively moderate tempo chosen for the finale also brought a trade-off: less adrenaline and visceral excitement but also an uncommon clarity of passagework. Still, one has hopes that everything might come together in the repeat performances.

After intermission, it was a pleasure to hear Schubert’s expansive final completed symphony under Haitink’s wise and measured baton. There were a few scattered passages of uncharacteristic stridency from the brass but also plenty of moments to relish in the subtle work of the trombones, and some impeccably controlled solo playing by principal horn James Sommerville.

The woodwinds also rose to the occasion, as individual soloists and playing beautifully as a section.

At the end of the night, the BSO’s two retirees were honored from the stage.

Violinist Ronald Knudsen joined the orchestra in 1965, and has frequently conducted the Boston Pops over the years.

And Marshall Burlingame has been the orchestra’s principal librarian since 1985. Both were warmly acknowledged by the musicians on stage, and cheered by an audience already on its feet.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
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