CAMBRIDGE — Benjamin Zander’s program for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s final 2014-15 concert was a Romantic one: the Overture to Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1, and Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.” On Thursday at Sanders Theatre, the works seemed to illuminate one another, and the BPO played with passion.
The “Tannhäuser” Overture sets out the opera’s conflict between spirit and flesh, as the music for the pilgrims’ procession gives way to Tannhäuser’s raptures about the Venusberg and his hymn to Venus. The performance with which Andris Nelsons initiated his tenure with the BSO last fall was highly inflected, an opera in miniature. Zander’s reading was less fraught but no less weighted, highlighted by a near-orgiastic return of the Venusberg music and then a majestic final statement of the pilgrim theme.
For the Saint-Saëns, Zander had his principal cellist from the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, 20-year-old Jonah Ellsworth. Effectively one 20-minute movement, the piece is discreetly scored, which lets the cello shine, but the solo part is a challenging one, and Ellsworth was equal to it. His tone is dark and dry, and he conveys feeling without strain. What particularly stood out was the authority of his phrasing in the slow sections, where he emerged as a kind of unrepentant Tannhäuser. The orchestra provided a rich contrast, particularly in Saint-Saëns’s surprise introduction of a lightfooted minuet over which the soloist sighs and soars.
Nothing could be more romantic than the inspiration for the “Symphonie fantastique”: an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, with whom Berlioz fell in love after seeing her as Ophelia in “Hamlet.” Her melody appears in each of the five movements as an idée fixe, running through the composer’s opium dream, waltzing with a rival at a ball, threatening betrayal in the country, laughing as the guillotine is about to fall, mocking him at a witches’ sabbath.
When Zander last performed this with the BPO, in 2006, I remember wishing for more fantasy. Here again he could have held a looser rein, put greater pressure on the pulse points. But his classical approach — and Berlioz was an arch-classicist as well as an arch-Romantic — brought clarity to the composer’s architecture.
Like most conductors, Zander took the repeat in the first movement but not the one in the fourth; unlike most conductors, he included the optional cornet part in the second movement, which gave a military air to the ball. He paid close attention to matters of rhythm and balance, and that’s what makes Berlioz kinetic and wild. Best of all was the finale, where the line didn’t sag and the textures didn’t clot, two common failings. I haven’t heard the closing pages of the “Fantastique” taken this slowly — or this effectively — since Otto Klemperer’s 1963 EMI recording.
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Conducted by Benjamin Zander
At: Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Thursday (repeats on Saturday at Jordan Hall and Sunday at Sanders Theatre)