Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 premiered at the Boston Music Hall in 1875. Less than a decade later, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was founded, and the piece has been a regular fixture of the orchestra’s repertoire ever since. In recent years, it’s become especially popular for young pianists making their BSO debuts; Yuja Wang (2007), Kirill Gerstein (2010), and Daniil Trifonov (2012) all introduced themselves to the orchestra with the powerful piece. On Thursday evening, with guest conductor Dima Slobodeniouk on the podium, the Italian pianist Beatrice Rana joined those ranks – and fingers crossed, she’ll also join that crew in becoming a returning guest.
It didn’t take long for Rana to convey that she had not come to Symphony Hall to trace the typically pounding path through the concerto. Like the aforementioned Wang, Rana has a clear affinity for sequins in her concert dress, but that’s where the similarities end. The first chords of the piano, just barely arpeggiated, rose out of the orchestra like a cresting wave. The concerto offers plenty of opportunities for its soloist to set off fireworks (see: the caffeinated scherzo of the second movement, the parallel octave frenzy in the third), but none of Rana’s transitions between phrases felt explosive — every phrase was a clear continuation of what had come before, with the trajectory of the next in mind, and each movement was one uninterrupted thought. During unaccompanied sections, she made judicious use of rubato, varying the phrase lengths enough to be noticeable but not to excess. Dynamics were deftly controlled, with fortes muscular and pianissimos delicate and light but never frothy.
In the second movement, dialogues between Rana and various woodwinds played out over a thrum in the low strings, rendered with such delicacy that it wasn’t even apparent it was there until it was gone. Slobodeniouk had a score on the stand in front of him during the concerto, but was rarely seen consulting it; soloist and conductor seemed to have fused their minds, with each anticipating the other’s next move before it happened. Some soloists immediately seize control of the music with both hands, others appear to let the music play them — but Rana stood outside that binary, embodying the music with every gesture, and Slobodeniouk adroitly guided the orchestra to make her interpretation shine. This is a soloist/conductor pair I’d travel to see again.
The musicians collected a well-deserved standing ovation, the audience hollered for an encore, and Rana rolled out Debussy’s Étude No. 6, “pour les huit doigts” (for the eight fingers), signing off for the night with a breathless 90 seconds of cross-handed mischief.
Like Rana, Slobodeniouk approaches each piece as a whole entity, not a series of dots to connect — though in the case of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, performed after intermission, a little more attention to the dots may have been warranted. Maybe it was just one of those nights for some of the players; this certainly wasn’t new repertoire for most of the people on stage, but several sections and solos were uncharacteristically threadbare for the BSO. Still, the symphony had plenty of verve and soul; Slobodeniouk’s wiry, lean physicality calls to mind a retired ballet dancer, and traces of the dance imbued everything he touched, from his sweeping but controlled motions to his strong but springy accents, which gave Dvořák’s themes fresh life. The orchestra rallied in the finale as if to erase all memories of the earlier flubs, and when it reached the piece’s summit, the final few bars graced the audience with the sonic equivalent of a blazing sunset.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Saturday. 617-266-1200, www.bso.org