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The BSO’s all-Russian holiday

Under Anna Rakitina’s baton, the orchestra and pianist Inon Barnatan served up a fresh account of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

In Symphony Hall on Friday, Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan performed Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the BSO under the direction of Anna Rakitina.Winslow Townson

The Boston Symphony Orchestra typically leans lighter for its Thanksgiving weekend concerts, and so it was again this year. A large and enthusiastic crowd turned out to hear assistant conductor Anna Rakitina leading Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” as part of an all-Russian program. Opening the program was a new work: Elena Langer’s Orchestral Suite from her opera “Figaro Gets a Divorce.”

Langer, a Moscow-born, England-based composer, created the original work for the Welsh National Opera, where it premiered in 2016. The libretto by David Pountney takes its cue from tradition and is inspired by “The Guilty Mother,” the third play in the Beaumarchais trilogy whose first two parts gave us Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” Langer’s work takes its actual title from Ödön von Horváth’s play of 1936, a second source for the libretto.


The new opera seems to bring the characters of Figaro and Susanna into a darker Europe buffeted by war and revolution. There are also added characters including a sinister figure called the Major represented musically by the accordion. The composer’s Orchestral Suite hops deftly from style to style, apparently sampling widely from the opera. Its six movements are filled with enough colorful and theatrically vibrant writing — by turns jazzy, pungent, tartly ironic, and dramatic — to whet one’s curiosity about the original stagework. The composer was on hand Friday to introduce the piece personally from the stage, a welcome new tradition at the BSO. And Rakitina led the orchestra in a well-characterized reading.

On the other end of the program, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in the famous Ravel orchestration, provided its own suite-like counterbalance. This is of course a kind of Slavic party piece, and the BSO, some blurred brass playing notwithstanding, gave it a zesty account. Standout contributions came from Richard Svoboda’s dusky bassoon and Ryan Yuré's silky saxophone in the “Old Castle” movement. In the “Bydlo” (Cattle) movement, Mike Roylance’s tuba solo canopied the hall in burnished tone. Rakitina led with broad gestures and unflagging energy, keeping the tempo moving if occasionally at the expense of a measure of grandeur.


Sandwiched between the two works, Rachmaninoff’s “Paganini Variations” received the best performance of the night. Israel-born, New York-based pianist Inon Barnatan approaches this score less as a virtuoso tour de force than a series of stories, and you could feel it in his playing — lithe, supple, at times electric, and always intensely communicative. He was also clearly attentive to the many ways in which Rachmaninoff’s piano writing is interwoven with the orchestral textures, making chamber music-like connections left and right. Rakitina was there with him at every turn, and the end result was an exceptionally fresh account, capped here with an encore: Earl Wild’s virtuoso romp based on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” — in Barnatan’s take, all swing and style.


Anna Rakitina, conductor

At Symphony Hall, Friday afternoon

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.