Audience members at Symphony Hall for Thursday's Boston Symphony Orchestra concert could be forgiven for not quite believing that guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski would appear until the moment he strode onto the stage. Jurowski made one of the most astonishing BSO debuts in recent memory when he led a blistering performance of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony in October 2012. Until Thursday, however, he had not led the orchestra in Boston since, though he did so in Tanglewood. An engagement last year that included the American premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's "Responses" had to be scrubbed because of what was described as a work visa snafu.
But appear he did, and in contrast to the monumentalism of the Shostakovich, Thursday's program showed how impressive Jurowski could be in more modestly scaled repertoire. Haydn's "Lamentatione" Symphony, No. 26, had a spaciousness that belied the small forces on stage. All sorts of internal details and subsidiary events were audible, thanks in large part to the conductor's insistence on seating the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage. Jurowski largely eschewed beating time with the baton, instead using his left hand to tease out musical phrases that had a consistent ease and suppleness.
Violinist Alina Ibragimova was the soloist for the program's lone rarity: the "Concerto funebre" for violin and strings by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, one of the few German composers to remain in the country during the war yet avoid being co-opted as a Nazi token. His "internal exile" is audible throughout the concerto, whose composition was prompted by the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. The music, tonal but replete with dissonance, cycles through despair, apprehension, and icy fury; its final, ambivalent chord leavens these with an improbable element of hope.
Ibragimova's playing was gleaming and beautiful, but also rather objective, as though she were observing the concerto's Passion drama rather than enacting it from within. Only during the third movement, a barbed scherzo, did a fully expressive sense of anguish materialize; elsewhere her playing lacked some of the bite the music seems to demand.
She was more consistently impressive in Haydn's C-major Violin Concerto, where she and Jurowski collaborated in a reading of sparkle and vitality. The slow movement has a lyrical inwardness rare in the composer's early works, and Ibragimova's faultlessly elegant playing captured it adroitly.
Jurowski closed the evening with a performance of Beethoven's Second Symphony that bristled with intensity and fresh insights. Here, the Second was a sort of trial run for the energies that would later emerge in the "Eroica," rather than an extension of the classically proportioned First. At times it sounded like a symphony for winds and brass with string accompaniment, so pointedly did Jurowski spotlight those sections of the orchestra. Everywhere he drew sharp contrasts — between rhythms, tempos, and textures, between what was before and what came next. The head of steam created by the finale's coda was exhilarating. The BSO should not wait long to bring Jurowski back.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
At Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Friday and Saturday)