The old cliché is true: absence makes the heart grow fonder. Certainly that’s true for Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the Piano Concerto by Norway’s most iconic composer, Edvard Grieg. The piece was one of Andsnes’s calling-cards for many years — he has recorded it twice, and played it at the Last Night of the Proms in 2002 — but then, he took a 12-year break from the beloved warhorse concerto. No longer; this fall, he’s playing it all over America, Europe, and Asia with some of the world’s top orchestras, and it’s our luck that the Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of them.
Though the concerto took up less than half the concert’s total run time, there’s no contest that it was the most memorable event on Thursday evening, showing both soloist and orchestra at their best. Andsnes carried the solo with comfortable, assured authority; this was a performer who had absolutely nothing to prove. At the center of the solo’s virtuosic brilliance and fleet-fingered theatrics lay a sense of deep blue calm.
With BSO music director Andris Nelsons on the podium, the orchestra’s intonation was pristine but never mechanistic. The second movement’s long introduction was veiled in feathery ethereality, setting the stage for the gorgeous cascades of the piano solo. Zingy pizzicatos backed up the brawny dance of the third movement; the lyrical midsection saw Blaise Déjardin’s cello singing out low, long notes, responding to the melody before the entire orchestra picked it up. So many of this concerto’s familiar melodies are easily overcooked, and none of them were on Thursday. The piece felt fresh in its marriage of technique and artistry, all elements combining to give it that indefinable quality called soul. If I closed my eyes, I could almost see Yuzuru Hanyu skating to it.
Looking at the history of the piano concerto, one may surmise that Grieg never considered himself absolutely finished with it — though he completed the initial score in 1869 at age 25, he continued to revise it throughout his life, with the final set of edits arriving at the publisher just a few weeks before his death, nearly 40 years later. After this performance, you might find yourself hoping Andsnes will never be finished with it either. For an encore, Andsnes cooled down with more Grieg: the loping Norwegian March from Book 5 of the Lyric Suite.
Speaking of avid revisers, how about Mahler? At this point in Nelsons’s tenure as music director, he has led the BSO through all of Mahler’s symphonies save No. 7. This week he returned to Symphony No. 4, which he last conducted with the BSO in 2017.
The piece shows a playful side, as playful as the death-obsessed symphonist gets. Merry bells and flutes ring in the first movement, and the first horn sounds off with high, squirling acrobatics; assistant principal Richard Sebring nailed those, in just one corner of the vast expressive and dynamic range he showed throughout the piece. In the second movement, the concertmaster swaps between a standard violin and one tuned higher to add infernal harshness, representing a German folk personification of Death. To this end, concertmaster Tamara Smirnova was workmanlike, with a little devilry afoot.
Though various soloists reliably added flashes of color and brilliance, the music intermittently lost and found its direction. But, of course, it does go somewhere in the end — heaven, where a soprano sings some of the most ridiculous lyrics in the repertoire, a child’s vision of paradise featuring bread-baking angels and a detailed list of the vegetables and fruits. Austrian soprano Genia Kühmeier approached it with bright-eyed vigor and crisp diction, and the orchestra came fully alive.
On Monday, the orchestra and Andsnes take the show on the road to Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Nov. 14. Repeats Nov. 16. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë 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.