After a wintry pause, Grosvenor opens BSO’s new year with probing Mozart

January 6, 2018 at 1:06 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Benjamin Grosvenor performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 with François-Xavier Roth and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Aram Boghosian

Benjamin Grosvenor performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with François-Xavier Roth and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Aram Boghosian

Rarely do winter storms interrupt business at Symphony Hall. But Thursday’s blizzard–which dumped over a foot of snow in the Boston area–was enough to reschedule the evening’s scheduled Boston Symphony Orchestra, concert until Sunday afternoon.

It was back to business Friday night. In the first “Casual Friday” concert of the new year—open-collar events that offer free wine and food along with a shortened 90-minute program—François-Xavier Roth led the BSO in familiar works by Mozart and Beethoven. For those who had dug their car out of the snow or took the slower-than-usual train service, Roth and the orchestra made the trip downtown worthwhile.

The solo spotlight fell upon Benjamin Grosvenor. At only 25, the British pianist has blossomed into an artist of international renown for his expansive repertoire and probing musical mind. His vehicle of choice Thursday night was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, in which he made his BSO debut.

Safe as this choice of concerto might look on paper, Grosvenor’s performance brought the piece to vivid life. Textures were soft, phrases were shaped in singing lines, and the music flowered with both classical grace and lyricism. 

Grosvenor possesses a dazzling technique but there’s more to his touch than mere fireworks. The second theme of the first movement sounded with searching mystery, and his playing brought subtle weight to the minor-key passages than dot the development section. 

The finale had stormy energy as well, and Grosvenor brought fire and intensity to the cadenzas (by French pianist Robert Casadesus), which sounding almost like miniature sonatas unto themselves.

The orchestra supplied a similarly sensitive accompaniment as Roth, conducting without a baton, conjuring soft crescendos and sculpted aria-like phrases from the ensemble.

The highlight of this performance was the second movement, which features one of Mozart’s most beautiful melodies. Grosvenor rendered the music with poetic touch while Roth’s accompaniment wrapped him a bed of plush sound. 

To follow, Roth led a mostly bracing account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

The work has long set the example for symphonic development that results in triumph over tragedy. Friday’s performance offered plenty of the former yet not enough of the latter.

Roth took the opening at a stately pace, avoiding the dramatic emphasis usually heard in the familiar four-note statement. The movement moved briskly, but Roth’s quick pace resulted in a few moments of imprecision in the strings. The second theme rose and fell in wide arcs, with the phrases seeming to die away before coming to completion. The lack of probing depth in this reading was remedied in coda, which unfolded in passages of both power and solace.

The second movement had a lovely lyrical flow, with strings sounding warm and rosy. Winds, too, colored the texture with richly textured solos. By the time the scherzo came around, Roth seemed to have found a groove. The opening sounded with a haunting glow while the horn calls, an iteration of the opening four-note motive, were bold. Cellos and violas dug in with verve for a dusky Trio.

The finale offered an aptly triumphant conclusion, and Roth coaxed the running scales of the first theme at a whip-crack pace. With the coda ramping up the excitement, the music finally found the radiance and drama missing from the opening movement.  

The program, along with Méhul’s Overture to The Amazons, will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday and 5 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200

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