There’s nothing revelatory about the program Benjamin Zander has chosen for the opening concerts of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s 41st season. The Overture to Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” (“The Magic Flute”) is followed by Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan, and then Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” And though there was nothing revelatory about the performances Zander and company delivered at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre Thursday evening, they were immensely satisfying. We don’t hear these works every season, and even if we do — Andris Nelsons and the BSO have scheduled the Bartók in January and again in April — they’re still welcome.
Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” his final opera, was composed and premiered the year he died, 1791. As usual with his operas, the Overture was the last part to be written. The triple chords that start it off might suggest Sarastro’s priests, but the rest of the Overture owes nothing to the melodies of the opera, though a flute does introduce the second theme. Leading an orchestra with considerably more strings than Mozart was accustomed to, Zander gave admirable clarity to the opera buffa fugue sections and propulsion to the whole.
Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto premiered in Budapest in 1881, with the composer at the piano. It’s a big work — with four movements, almost like a symphony — that can exceed 50 minutes. The opening French-horn call is, like so much of Brahms’s writing, autumnal; it augurs a celebration of the harvest and the hunt while mourning the passage of time. The Allegro appassionato scherzo is an intense wintry waltz, the Andante a reflection and a meditation, the Allegretto grazioso a light-hearted finale with a tinge of melancholy. The solo part is even harder to play than you’d think from listening to it, and on top of that the pianist has to shift from heroic to wistful, stoic to regretful, in a heartbeat.
With tempos at the fast end of the spectrum, Thursday’s performance from Deljavan and Zander was emotionally a shade monochromatic. Deljavan’s playing is tumultuous and impulsive, with a lot of weight in the left hand and subtle breaks in his phrasing, but the shaping of the concerto overall was subtle to a fault. He was at his best in the Andante, where, after a songful cello solo from Rafael Popper-Keizer, he sustained a melting meditation, some romantic frustration, and finally a dreamy reverie. And he had enough gas left in the technical tank to power through Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Étude as an encore.
Serge Koussevitzky commissioned the “Concerto for Orchestra” for the BSO; Bartók composed it in 1943 and, though ill with leukemia, was able to attend the well-received premiere in December 1944. The piece is as heroic as Brahms’s concerto, though in a more playful mode. The beginning of the “Introduzione” alludes, darkly, to the composer’s 1918 opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.” In the second-movement “Giuoco delle coppie” (“Game of Couples”), a side drum ushers along a succession of paired instruments: bassoons, then oboes, clarinets, flutes, and finally muted trumpets. (Bartók once mentioned that he had in mind the Biblical animals processing, two by two, to Noah’s ark.) You might hear World War II in the strings’ agonized outcry during the “Elegia” third movement, but then the “interruption” part of the “Intermezzo interrotta” fourth appears to spoof both “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” from Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” and the parody march from the first movement of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. Counterpoint runs riot in the moto perpetuo finale.
Performances of the “Concerto for Orchestra” regularly run 36 or 37 minutes; Zander’s clocked in at 40. Yet his reading was taut and energetic throughout, no small feat in a work where conductors tend to lose steam. He conveyed the brooding “Bluebeard” atmosphere of the “Introduzione,” with a primordial flute solo from Lisa Hennessy, before building into the excitement of the main Allegro vivace. The brass chorale that bisects the “Giuoco delle coppie” was properly enigmatic; the strings, reprising the first-movement flute melody, were anguished in the long-breathed “Elegia”; the “Intermezzo interrotta” was bright and everyone had great fun with the interruption. The finale, with one fugue that peters out before another starts up, is particularly difficult to hold together, but Zander never lost the thread.
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
At Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Oct. 17. Remaining performances: Jordan Hall, Oct. 19; Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Oct. 20. 617-236-0999, www.bostonphil.org