Teen pianist sparks a program of Russian opposites with Boston Philharmonic

November 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm

By Angelo Mao

George Li performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.

Music from Russia made up the the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s program under conductor Benjamin Zander Thursday night at the Sanders Theater, but the two selections could not have been more different. The first was Rachmaninoff’s popular and deeply romantic Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring the soloist George Li. The second selection was a diametrical opposite: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, written by the composer at a time when he was under the threat of arrest and deportation to a Soviet gulag. (“The majority of my symphonies,” Shostakovich reportedly said, “are tombstones.”)

The famous first bars of the Piano Concerto’s bell-like chords give us an idea of how Li chose to approach the piece. In Rachmaninoff’s own recording, the chords sound relentless; Li’s are more expansive, more emotive. Zander conducts like a man extracting as much flavor as he can from Rachmaninoff’s score. This leads to some overindulging in the lower strings, and the results can both overpower and slacken.

Elsewhere, Zander drew consistently strong performances from the orchestra. He also adeptly urges the climaxes, and Li responds meticulously yet with thrilling panache. Li is just 17—and looks even younger—but he did full justice to both the lyrical and virtuosic aspects of Rachmaninoff’s score, with riveting playing in the cadenzas and climaxes.

The Shostakovich Symphony 5, Zander tells us, is often performed with the last movement taken much too fast. As a result, the work gains a triumphant flavor that Shostakovich did not intend. To underscore his point, Zander, in his pre-performance lecture, conducts the ending as, say, Leonard Bernstein might. But what this does is prime the listener’s ears for a revelatory difference. When the actual ending comes, it’s underwhelming: certainly the tempo is slower, but does it make us hear the gulag that much more than it did before?

Zander’s focus on the ending inevitably took some attention away from the rest of the work, which—especially after the Rachmaninoff—sounds ethereal and sparse in parts and wrenching and sarcastic in others. No matter if it was Shostakovich’s covert criticism of Stalin or Zander’s own interpretive choices: the almost brutishly simple two-part canons and string accompaniments are still direct and affecting.

The brittle soundscape of the second movement has been co-opted by movie soundtracks, but the third movement, with its whittling away of strings, is spare and moving. The symphony received an emotional and satisfying performance from the Philharmonic, with Zander’s conducting keenly depicting the fourth movement—Stalin personified—as sonically stomping on the gentle apotheosis that concludes the third movement. Audiences will likely come for the showmanship of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, but it’s Shostakovich’s symphony that contains the music most resonant with our day and age.

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday in Jordan Hall (with a pre-concert talk at 6:45 pm) and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Sanders Theater (with a pre-concert talk at 1:45 pm). bostonphil.org

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