The program that Czech guest conductor Jakub Hruša assembled for Thursday’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert was unusual, surrounding Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto with a trio of works by Slavic composers, including one the BSO had never played. This wasn’t an uplifting trio: Smetana’s “Šárka” ends with a massacre, Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” describes a witches’ sabbath, and in Janácek’s “Taras Bulba,” the title hero and his two sons die in agony. But Hruša’s conducting made it an uplifting evening.
The soloist for the Bartók was German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. This is a masterful work whose first movement juxtaposes a Hungarian verbunkos march melody with a “Calmo” second theme that’s a 12-tone row of sorts and some Gypsy fiddling. The second movement is a set of sublime variations; the third transforms the themes of the first. Over it all hover storm clouds — or storm troopers, with the violin on the run from Stalin and Hitler.
Zimmermann’s tone was ascetic and his approach at times fraught in an interpretation that leaned to the composer’s modernist side. He was at his best in the second movement’s theme, which sang, and in the high lonesome final variation, where the theme finds itself stranded among the stars. Hruša’s raw, bright accompaniment tightroped between folk and modern, which for Bartók seems just right. For his encore, which the audience demanded, Zimmermann played a transcription of Rachmaninoff’s G-minor Prelude. There was no faulting his technique, but the piece sounds better in its original piano version.
Hruša’s way with the three Slavic pieces matched his approach to the Bartók: clear, colorful, and full of contrast. In Šárka,” the third of the six sections of Smetana’s “Má vlast,” he reveled in the love theme for the title Bohemian Amazon and the princely knight, Ctirad, who rescues her. But Šárka has been betrayed in love and is out for revenge; she gives Ctirad’s soldiers drugged mead, and after they fall asleep (a wonderful snore from principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda), she summons her fellow Amazons, and they kill the men.
“Night on Bald Mountain” was performed in the traditional 1886 arrangement and orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov, with many of Mussorgsky’s eccentricities smoothed over. The “night” in this piece is St. John’s Eve, close to the summer solstice; the witches cavort and celebrate Satan until a tolling bell and a twinkling harp signal dawn. Hruša’s performance was extroverted but not hurried, and when the satanic revelry gave way to redemption and benediction, there were heart-rending solos from principal clarinettist William Hudgins and principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe.
“Taras Bulba,” whose final version dates to 1918, was the BSO premiere. The story, which Janácek adapted from Gogol’s 1842 novella, is set in Ukraine, where Cossack Taras Bulba is trying to free his country from Poland. His son Andri falls in love with a Polish girl and joins the Poles; when father and son meet in battle, Taras kills Andri. In the second episode, Andri’s brother Ostap is captured, tortured, and executed; in the third, Taras himself is captured and burned at the stake, but not before prophesying the triumph of Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian spirit.
Hruša made the first episode a struggle between Keisuke Wakao’s oboe, which represented the lovers, and the bells of Russian Orthodoxy, and in the third episode you could hear the pulsing rhythm of the Intrada from Janácek’s “Glagolitic Mass.” The triumphant finale wasn’t just heroic, it was noble. This is Hruša’s first guest appearance with the BSO. It shouldn’t be his last.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Oct. 13. (Repeats Friday and Saturday). 888-266-1200, www.bso.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.