Two BSO debuts strike sparks in an evening of Chopin and Mendelssohn

April 20, 2018 at 12:00 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jan Lisiecki performed Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Tugan Sokhiev conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Jan Lisiecki performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Tugan Sokhiev conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Every Boston Symphony Orchestra season features conductors and soloists in debut performances. Rarely do both make their first appearance with the orchestra on the same program.

But that’s just what happened Thursday night at Symphony Hall, where conductor Tugan Sokhiev and pianist Jan Lisiecki each marked their bow with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Russian-Ossetian conductor has carved a niche for himself through recordings of works by Prokofiev, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, among others. He strikes a graceful presence on the podium, leading with brisk but careful gestures and the occasional wave of the left arm to direct longer lines from the orchestra. Lisiecki, a 22-year-old Canadian of Polish ancestry, is a consummate and mature artist who proved a sensitive partner in Thursday night’s main course, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11. 

Though published first, the E minor concerto was actually the second of the composer’s two piano concertos to be written. It is not a showpiece cast in a thoroughly romantic style. Though a fine vehicle for the soloist, the work possesses slim and often rather dull orchestration, a holdover of the conservative, more classically informed styles of Hummel and Moscheles rather than striking out new Romantic ground like Beethoven.

But in the hands of Lisiecki and Sokhiev, the work emerged with a live-wire intensity one often encounters in the most technically dazzling warhorses for piano and orchestra.

Lisiecki played with a sterling technique and a soft legato well suited to Chopin’s flowering lines. He punched out the opening chords of the first movement with power and precision. For the second theme, his tone took on both crystalline and pearly shade. The churning lines of the development section were played with an almost Lisztian depth and exuberance. This was Chopin cast in bold colors.

There were also plenty of affecting moments in this performance. The gnarly phrases of the third movement moved with crispness, and the Romanza brought some of the most beautiful music of the evening. There, Lisiecki, using generous rubato, spun lines of soft elegance.

Sokhiev’s accompaniment wrapped the pianist in a velvety bed of orchestral sound. Brief solos for French horn and bassoon commented upon Lisiecki’s solo figures with chamber-like intimacy.

Lisiecki’s encore, Chopin’s op posthumous Nocturne in C-sharp minor reprised the same lush and silvery sound world experienced in the concerto.

Fine playing and tender lyricism also characterized Thursday’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, “Italian,” which Sokhiev led in the concert’s second half.

Like many young conductors on the scene today, the 40-year-old Sokhiev mines minute details from the scores he conducts. In Mendelssohn’s ebullient Fourth Symphony, he drew attention to secondary parts that often go unnoticed, such as a surging cello and viola passage or a quick trumpet call.

But Sokhiev’s interpretation also revealed a keen sense of the musical line. The string passages of the second movement were shaped like a vocal arc, and wind phrases had the solemnity of chant. The third movement managed to swirl in its brisk, waltz-like tempo, though the music never lost its singing quality.

Sokhiev’s reading of the rest of the symphony drew playing of bristling excitement. The principal theme of the first movement beamed with intensity, and the flutes added deft energy to the finale’s blazing Saltarello.

The opener, Britten’s Simple Symphony for string orchestra, had similar moments of drive and beauty. Though the Bachian lines of the first movement lacked requisite bite, the pizzicato rustlings of the second movement and quick figures of the finale took on a bucolic verve. The middle section of the funereal third movement, the beating heart of this work, glowed from rosy-toned viola and violin phrases.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200.

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