With Beethoven’s music so ubiquitous in Symphony Hall, you could be forgiven for not noticing, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra is in fact winding down its 2011-12 season with essentially one-half of a complete Beethoven symphony cycle. Leonidas Kavakos’s Fourth Symphony started off this half-cycle at the end of March, putting on view the enthusiasms of a young conductor still finding his footing. Yet batting cleanup during these final weeks - with the First, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies - is Bernard Haitink, in whom the classical style resides with a fluency and ease matched by few living conductors.
Haitink’s account of the “Pastoral’’ Thursday night was uncommonly lucid. There were no major interpretive agendas, no special pleading for unusual tempos, no efforts to “dust off’’ an overplayed work with idiosyncratic emphases to make the music sound fresh. What transpired seemed somehow much more basic: an eminent conductor making a great orchestra sound its best. But there was more.
The musicians’ investment in Haitink’s vision was palpable, not in any physical demonstrativeness - the strings remained as buttoned-down as ever - but in the playing itself: the fullness and lift in the sound, the delicacy of the balances, the lilt in the phrasing, the transparency of the details. The BSO deservedly prides itself on its ability to accommodate the vision of a wide array of guest conductors - a skill honed by necessity in recent years. Yet Thursday night, it felt like the sound Haitink wanted was very close to how the orchestra collectively hears itself. Or to put it another way, Haitink’s gift is to realize a distinctly personal interpretation with the ensemble speaking not in his voice but in its own.
Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’’ opened the program in a less revelatory manner but still featured eloquent woodwind contributions, particularly the flute solos of Elizabeth Rowe. The winds in fact had more prominence than usual on the first half thanks to the inclusion of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, a work that asks much of them in its lovely detours. Flutist Elizabeth Ostling notably rose to the occasion.
The evening’s refined soloist was the young yet well-traveled Austrian pianist Till Fellner in his BSO debut. His playing was all Apollonian grace, with a sensitively spun Andante and a third movement cadenza that was remarkable in its clarity, musicality, and feline virtuosity. Haitink was a responsive partner, meeting him at every turn.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.