CAMBRIDGE — Romance, if not yet spring, was in the air Thursday at Sanders Theatre, as Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra presented Schumann's "Manfred" Overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with soloist Jennifer Frautschi, and finally Elgar's Symphony No. 1. The program was well chosen; you could hear echoes of Mendelssohn in the Schumann and echoes of Schumann in the Elgar. It was also beautifully, and romantically, performed: a belated valentine.
Completed in 1817, Byron's dramatic poem "Manfred" finds its hero confronted by spirits in the Swiss Alps after the death of his lover Astarte, who may also be his sister. The best-known part of the incidental music that Schumann composed in 1848 is the Overture. Zander's reading was intense but not overwrought, moving from the brooding introduction, with Jennifer Slowik's sinuous oboe solo, through craggy mountain peaks and plunging torrents before subsiding into defiant resignation as an unrepentant Manfred dies.
Mendelssohn's familiar Violin Concerto, from 1844, is prone to glossy, sweet-tempered performances. Frautschi, a Brookline resident, made the piece personal with an incisive tone and subtle phrasing. She was impassioned in the opening Allegro molto appassionato and tender in the Andante without turning it into an Adagio; her articulation of the scurrying Allegro molto vivace finale was exceptionally lucid. Zander accorded her the spotlight with a dry-eyed accompaniment.
Elgar's First was a hit at its 1908 premiere, but it's rarely heard in Boston. The symphony begins with a slow A-flat-major motto theme that, marked "nobilmente," strides out for three stirring minutes before fading. This motto will recur throughout, in bits and pieces, its noble idealism assailed by roiling minor-key themes and tramping marches, before reasserting itself at the end in uncertain triumph, almost as if it were flying through perpetual anti-aircraft fire.
Elgar himself conducted the symphony, particularly the first movement, with stiff-upper-lip reserve. Zander was more expansive, and, crucially for Elgar, he got weight and warmth from the lower strings. The motto theme went at a steady tread, the D-minor Allegro of the first movement didn't clot, and the F-major second subject conjured dappled sunlight. Zander was ferocious in the march of the scherzo and jaunty in the "river" trio; he made the Adagio a balm of Brucknerian serenity with Brucknerian hints of doubt, and when the motto, its notes transformed, bid a wistful farewell, muted trombones sounded in mourning. The finale was majestic but never sentimental. Elgar's First is one of the great symphonies of the 20th century, and this was a great performance.
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
At: Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Thursday (repeats Sunday)
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.