Perianes provides the highlights as BSO opens 2020 in rough-edged fashion

January 3, 2020 at 11:38 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Javier Perianes performed Beethoven”s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Marcelo Lehninger conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

The Boston Symphony Orchestra returned to action Thursday night, with former assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger leading the orchestra in canonic favorites by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky at Symphony Hall.

The new year marks the 250th anniversary of the former’s birth, and it will, no doubt, be celebrated thoroughly in coming months. One hopes that subsequent BSO Beethoven performances will prove more vital and purposeful than did Thursday’s rough-hewn traversals of the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus and Piano Concerto no. 5, “Emperor.”

In the Overture to Beethoven’s 1801 ballet, a sprightly tempo couldn’t make up for episodes of ragged ensemble, disjunct rhythmic attacks, and insufficient dynamic contrasts.

As for the 1809 concerto, the best thing about it was the soloist, Javier Perianes. The keyboardist has appeared with the BSO once before, in 2016. He is subbing at these concerts because a shoulder injury necessitated the withdrawal of the weekend’s originally scheduled guest, Nelson Freire.

No matter: Perianes is as musically thoughtful and nimble-fingered a pianist as they come. His playing on Thursday was radiant, both in the Beethoven and in his encore of Chopin’s dreamy A-minor Mazurka (Op. 17, no. 4).

From the beginning of the concerto, Perianes imbued the solo part with a deftness of touch and sense of direction that never flagged. The first movement’s opening cascades were big and noble in tone, but never unduly weighted down. The main section was marked by glittering colors (particularly in the piano’s upper register), rhythmic energy, and textural transparency. 

In the finale, Perianes’ phrasing of the movement’s refrain tripped with bracing unpredictability. Alas, the accompaniment that Lehninger drew from the BSO was, in that third movement, almost completely the opposite: humorless, rigid, and lumbering.

The first movement, too, came across as blunt and heavy-footed. Where was the playfulness, sweetness, sense of character in the majestic woodwind melody just before its coda? Or the rustic whimsy of the movement’s strutting, march-like subject? Nowhere to be found in Thursday’s reading where a fog of dutiful facelessness dogged the orchestral playing under Lehninger.

Only in the Adagio’s delicately lyrical passagework did Perianes and Lehninger find their way to the same page. Here, especially over the movement’s second half, soloist and BSO were fully simpatico,  exchanging their respective foreground and background roles with utter naturalness.

If this “Emperor” lacked freedom and spontaneity from the podium, the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony that followed intermission went perhaps too far in the other direction.

The piece is no stranger to the BSO, having turned up regularly on the orchestra’s programs since 1892. And there was a certain comfort level evident in Thursday’s account, especially during the second-movement woodwind solos, which were dulcet and flexibly shaped as one might have wanted.

Throughout, tempos tended to be swift. This resulted in a slow movement that was admirably focused: never dawdling and featuring a grand, soaring climax that was well-balanced.

Tight rhythms and a good sense of direction marked the first movement, as well. And the third-movement waltz brimmed with all the grace, personality, and charm that the Prometheus curtain-raiser had lacked.

In the finale, Lehninger drove the Allegro vivace at a furious pace. This was impressive to a point. Yet the music soon became texturally blurry, some of its wilder moments teetered perilously close to the edge. By the time the movement’s apex arrived, with the brasses blowing everyone out of their way, the effect had become frenetic.

Taken together with underpowered dynamic contrasts and the occasionally obdurate bit of phrasing and Lehninger’s was, to put it mildly, a quirky Tchaikovsky Five that proved an idiosyncratic misfire.

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

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