The Boston Symphony Orchestra typically embraces the comfort of the familiar for its post-Thanksgiving programs, and this year was no exception. After a week of performing mostly lesser-known music by Baltic and Slavic voices, the BSO returned to Schumann and Brahms for its final subscription program of the calendar year.
That said, with the unconventional German pianist Christian Zacharias as the week’s guest conductor and soloist, one could not have expected something fully routine. And sure enough, for the program’s central panel, Zacharias brought local audiences a rarity in the form of Schumann’s “Introduction and Allegro Appassionato,” a brief yet forcefully impetuous score for piano and orchestra. Written by Schumann in 1849 to be performed by his wife, the outstanding pianist Clara Schumann, the piece had not been played by the BSO in Symphony Hall since 1902.
A full decade before this work, and also prior to drafting his far-better-known Piano Concerto in A minor, Schumann already sensed this particular genre was ripe for renewal. “We must await the genius,” he wrote in 1839, “who will show us in a newer and more brilliant way, how orchestra and piano may be combined, how the soloist, dominant at the keyboard, may unfold the wealth of his instrument and his art, while the orchestra, no longer a mere spectator, may interweave its manifold facets into the scene.”
That sense of the orchestra as being promoted from “mere spectator” to co-conspirator in the work’s expressive throughline helps define this particular Concert-Piece, a kind of mini-concerto in all but name. Gone is the conventional give and take between the individual and collective. Schumann instead weaves the highly virtuosic piano part through the very center of the orchestral melodies, especially in the score’s opening pages. At times the two appear to almost talk over each other. Precisely here, on Saturday night, the second of two performances, there was significant room for improvement. With Zacharias conducting from the keyboard — which given the demands of the solo part, meant at times hardly conducting at all — balances were lacking the necessary precision. From my seat in the hall, the solo part was all but inaudible across many of the more subtle passages. Yet where the music was at its most emphatic, Zacharias’s extrovert, incisive keyboard work managed to cut through the surrounding textures and vividly carry the day.
Saturday’s account of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was not a performance for the ages in terms of ensemble precision or passing issues in intonation, but Zacharias’s choice of tempos felt freshly considered and he was alert to both poles of the work’s by turns ruminative and exuberant character. In the Fourth, of course, the latter ultimately wins out through an irrepressible coda that brought the BSO’s audience swiftly to its feet.
Zacharias’s conducting technique is rather unusual, his motions a mix of spacious evocation of character and taut rhythmic thrusts. It drew good results from the BSO in Brahms’s Serenade No. 2 which opened the program. In this work, Brahms jettisons the violins resulting in a string blend that here sounded especially rich and mellow, and above which the BSO woodwinds contributed eloquent solo work.
Next up: Keith Lockhart kicks off the Holiday Pops on Dec. 4. And the subscription series resumes after the new year when former BSO assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger returns with works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Pianist Nelson Freire, that program’s keenly anticipated soloist, has withdrawn because of a shoulder injury and will be replaced with the Spanish pianist Javier Perianes.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Christian Zacharias, conductor and pianist
At Symphony Hall, Nov. 30.