Zander, Boston Philharmonic open season with bold and beautiful Rachmaninoff

October 27, 2014 at 12:25 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Benjamin Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic in music of Mozart and Rachmaninoff Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre.

Colossal romantic works seem to be tailor-made for Benjamin Zander. Indeed, the conductor relishes in the gigantic sound worlds of Bruckner and Mahler, and his interpretations of their symphonies are always affecting and vivid.

Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre, Zander led the Boston Philharmonic in another monolith of the symphonic repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor.

For all of his successes as a pianist, conductor, and composer, Rachmaninoff struggled as a symphonist. His First Symphony was a failure, and the criticism that followed its 1897 premiere sent the composer spiraling into depression. But he came into his own with the Second Symphony, which, after long months of revision, was acclaimed at its first performance in 1908.

The work, which runs nearly an hour in length, offers listeners a lush wash of sweeping melodies and stirring, radiant lyricism. But because of its sprawling length and repetitious material, several conductors in the 1940s and 1950s revised the work further. The most severe of the cuts produced likely the speediest performance ever when Izler Solomon and the Boston Symphony Orchestra ran through the symphony in less than forty minutes in 1959.

But Zander, following in the footsteps of André Previn and other conductors who in the 1970s favored Rachmaninoff’s original score, brought the full splendor of the uncut version Sunday afternoon. Bold and beautiful, the Boston Philharmonic’s rendering of the symphony proved a remarkable season opener.

Zander’s interpretation for the piece was clear from the outset as he took time to craft each phrase with loving care without losing an eye for the big picture. The lines of the opening Largo soared. The ensuing Allegro moved as if a dance, though the ensemble took the time to paint the swelling passages with bold colors.

The orchestra surged with power for the work’s climatic points with the second movement scherzo and fourth movement march moving at a healthy gallop, the principal themes sounding at full force thanks to the hulking chords supplied by the brass. Some of the finest playing of the afternoon, though, came in the third movement. It was gorgeous and aglow with luminous playing from the strings. Solos from the clarinet, horn, first violin, and English horn, warmly rendered, peaked out of the texture like rays of sunshine through clouds.

The first half of the concert was dedicated to the music of Mozart.

The composer’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, which featured violinist Miriam Fried and violist Kim Kashkashian, is a seductively beautiful work and one of the composer’s finest string concertos. Both soloists communicated their lines with the orchestra and with one another clearly and colorfully, playing one theme with a stately grace and treating another with gentle ebb and flow to the phrasing. All the while, Fried’s silvery tone complemented Kashkashian’s amber-rich viola sound. Their cadenzas in the first and second movements had the grace of an operatic aria, their lines winding around each other to form delicate phrases.

Most affecting was the second movement, where the soloists, with rich tonal blend, mined the aching melancholy from the music’s arching melodies. Zander led the orchestra in a soft cushion of accompaniment, drawing out the music’s shapely lines with characteristic grace.

Zander and the orchestra opened with a sprightly reading of the overture to Cosí fan tutte. Warm oboe lines colored the piece’s slow introduction, and violins and woodwinds found the comedic humor of the overture’s laughing principal theme. Through it all, the orchestra played with finesse.

Zander will lead the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in music by Shostakovich, Dvořák, and Bartók 2 p.m. November 9 at Symphony Hall. The next Boston Philharmonic concert will feature music by Sibelius along with Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, with pianist HaeSun Paik 7:30 p.m. November 20 at Sanders Theatre. bostonphil.org; 617-236-0999

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