For its first concert of the new year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra opted for the comforts of the familiar: a warhorse-heavy program that included Beethoven (the overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus” and the “Emperor” Concerto) and Tchaikovsky (the Fifth Symphony). Also familiar was the figure on the podium: Marcelo Lehninger, who spent five years as the BSO’s assistant and then associate conductor. (He is now music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony.) Yet another old friend — pianist Nelson Freire, a BSO favorite — was originally slated to be the concerto soloist but withdrew because of injury. He was replaced by Javier Perianes, who was making his second set of appearances with the orchestra.
The new year’s music making did not get off to an inspiring start. A bland run-through of the overture was followed by a curious performance of the concerto. Perianes’s delicate, soft-edged sound and ruminative handling of the opening cadenzas raised the enticing possibility of a more intimate approach to this often over-heroicized piece. Alas, the hope was short-lived: Much of the concerto seemed stuck in neutral, one stretch of music sliding into another without much in the way of definition or purpose.
The orchestra never played really quietly; instead its sound fluctuated within a narrow spectrum of not too loud and fairly loud, giving everything a kind of sameness. Big moments arrived without a sense of why they were occurring when they did. Even the slow movement sounded static and disengaged where it should’ve created quiet radiance. The only consistent success was the brisk and elegant finale, which finally restored the sense of surprise and invention embedded in Beethoven’s writing. But it wasn’t enough to redeem a performance that often existed in a sort of no man’s land. As an encore, Perianes gave a translucent reading of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, (Op. 17 No. 4).
The Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, was outstanding — a performance comprising brilliant playing, a precise grasp of the score, and ferocious power, all held in perfect balance. Conducting from memory, Lehninger coaxed an appropriately dark sound from the orchestra — major props to the cellos and basses — and gave each movement the shape and direction one missed in the Beethoven. Eschewing sentimentality, he refused to wallow in any of the symphony’s big moments (and there are plenty). Everything moved, from the famously dark opening to the elegant waltz movement to the many climaxes, which were sharp and biting without verging into hysterics.
Among the players recognized at the conclusion were clarinetists William and Catherine Hudgins, timpanist Timothy Genis, and the entire brass section. None, however, made a bigger impression than principal horn James Sommerville, who was playing with the orchestra for the first time since last spring, having been on leave. His solo at the opening of the second movement — lyrical, understated, perfectly phrased — showed in microcosm the import of his presence in this ensemble. Lehninger recognized him immediately at the end of the symphony; then, during his first curtain call, the conductor walked over to the horn section to give Sommerville a hug.
Next up for the orchestra: a visit to France, in next week’s program of Debussy, Poulenc, and Saint-Saëns.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 2; repeats Jan. 3 and 4. www.bso.org