This week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program is devoted entirely to Mendelssohn’s rarely spotted “Lobgesang,’’ a so-called symphony-cantata that the BSO has performed only twice before in its history. We presumably have conductor Riccardo Chailly to thank for seeing it again, as the week was intended to be part of his grand introduction to BSO audiences, and it would seem he is not shy about reminding people that he holds a position, directing the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, once held by Mendelssohn himself. In the end, Chailly canceled his appearances, but the program stayed. The BSO brought in Bramwell Tovey as a substitute, in his subscription series debut.
Mendelssohn’s work, whose title means “Hymn of Praise,’’ premiered in 1840 as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing press. The composer was thinking big in both structure and scoring. Three purely instrumental movements open the work, followed by nine movements scored for various combinations of chorus, vocal soloists, and orchestra with organ.
The work’s superficial similarities to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony have played out largely to its disadvantage, with influential critics hearing it as a pale imitation of that masterwork, rather than as Mendelssohn’s own sui generis attempt to reflect back on his musical forbears while tracing, through texts drawn from the Psalms, a religious and intellectual journey from darkness into light.
Last night Symphony Hall had many empty seats, whether due to the unusual repertoire or the prospect of another substitute conductor. It was a pity because Tovey led a swift and sure-footed performance of the work, largely true to its Romantic heft, but never at risk of collapsing beneath the weight of its own grandiloquence.
There were times one wished he managed transitions with a bit more dramatic flair or harnessed the work’s rhetorical force to greater cumulative effect, but there were pleasures to be found in the constitutive parts.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus unleashed a robust and joyful noise at its first entrance, and by and large sustained its potent energy. Two well-matched soprano soloists, Carolyn Sampson and Camilla Tilling, made the most of the striking diaphanous duet that Mendelssohn weaves through choral and orchestral textures.
John Tessier, filling in for the previously announced tenor Mark Padmore, sang capably, though he might have brought more supplicatory urgency to Mendelssohn’s poignant pivotal setting of the lines, “We cried out in the darkness: Watchman, will the night soon pass?’’
Pass it does. The work ends without any grand Beethovian apotheosis, but last night the chorus still found plenty to celebrate in the arrival of dawn.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.