Two weeks ago the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, and a cast led by Christine Goerke delivered a scorching performance of Strauss's "Elektra." The same forces later brought the opera to Carnegie Hall, earning an ovation that left longtime New York concertgoers searching deep in their memories for a comparison.
This week, as if to beg your pardon for its modernist audacity, to soothe agitated nerves, or to smother any Straussian embers still glowing red on the stage with a blanket of prettiness, the BSO under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman offers a program of a very different sort. If you come, bring your sweet tooth. This dinner is mostly dessert.
The first half of the program is devoted to works by Tchaikovsky, beginning with his famous "Mélodie" and continuing with his "Sérénade Mélancolique."
The latter work was written for the great Hungarian violin pedagogue Leopold Auer. It was Auer who once stated that nuance was "the soul of interpretation"; Zukerman, performing here as soloist and conducting with the occasional wave of the bow, seems to find its soul elsewhere. He bathed both works in a warm singing tone that clearly found its appreciators in this large crowd. I confess I wished for more variety of color and a greater attention to expressive detail. The orchestral accompaniment was also short on definition. Between soloist and ensemble, the music wafted off the stage in a haze of generalized pleasantness.
Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings allowed the orchestra to step into the spotlight, with five basses positioned shoulder to shoulder across the back of the stage. And Schubert's youthful and inventive Fifth Symphony anchored the second half of the program, which also featured Elgar's "Chanson de Nuit."
Zukerman's conducting in these works projected a casual, journeyman quality. The composers have a lot to say in these scores and much of it delights. The BSO played them honorably. Still, one downside of returning frequently to the same repertory staples is that the faithful concertgoer has many sources of comparison relatively fresh in the ears. Thursday's Schubert, one feels obliged to report, could not match the elegance and charm of Bernard Haitink's performance of the same score in 2013. And the Tchaikovsky received a notably superior performance in 2012 by members of the BSO, performing without a conductor yet driving this music home with the force of a collective statement.
Taking his bows at the end of the night, Zukerman gestured to the crowd with his hands, as if to raise the level of the volume of the applause. There are other ways to do so.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Friday and Saturday)
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.