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BSO premieres Harbison’s elusive Sixth

David Zinman leads the BSO and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes last night at Symphony Hall.Stu Rosner

A composer never knows how many symphonies he will have the opportunity to write over the course of his lifetime. John Harbison has wisely made a point of never repeating himself. Each symphony sounds like none of its siblings, and yet all six of them have Harbison’s own signature voice: capacious, lean, searching. Consider for a moment how difficult it is to accomplish such a feat.

Boston Symphony Orchestra audiences have had the chance to reflect on the contours of Harbison’s symphonic arc over the last two seasons, thanks to the BSO’s complete survey of his work in this daunting genre. That two-year project comes to completion this week with the first performances of his new Sixth Symphony, commissioned by the orchestra and premiered last night in Symphony Hall.


And it is a completion rather than a culmination, with the triumphant sense of arrival the latter word implies. The Sixth is not an easy work nor a triumphant work. Its tone is dark and its rhetoric elusive. Harbison resists facile closed forms. It feels like music built from gathered shards. Yet in its controlled fragmentation, in its wedding of direct expression and obliqueness, and in the honesty and integrity of its sound world, Harbison’s Sixth lands as a masterful work and a fully worthy successor to his Fifth Symphony, performed as recently as last month.

The Sixth opens with a movement for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, an expansive setting of James Wright’s ambiguous poem “Entering the Temple in Nimes.’’ Three purely instrumental movements follow from that point, as if the orchestra is working through what it has just heard, but in ways that are never linear. Themes seem to eerily dissolve, time and pulse are slippery, solid harmonic ground grows unstable, would-be celebratory fanfares are blanched with dissonance. Yet none of this appears in rhetorical gestures easily “read.’’ The jarring jangly sounds of the Hungarian cimbalom show up seemingly from another world. The music ends with a suddenness, but it is not a note too short or too long. Last night mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy sang with radiant tone and David Zinman led a performance both sympathetic and knowing.


The evening began with an unremarkable account of Weber’s Overture to “Euryanthe,’’ followed by Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with soloist Leif Ove Andsnes. This excellent Norwegian pianist plays with a rare blend of fluidity and control, and his Beethoven last night grew more daring and boldly profiled as the work progressed, ending with a finale that was irresistible. At the evening’s close the contemplative spell cast by the Harbison was promptly dispersed by, of all pieces, Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,’’ with all its loud nose-thumbing orchestral virtuosity. It got a mostly solid performance but as a programming decision to follow the Harbison it was completely baffling, or more plainly said, a mistake.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.