One new face and one familiar face appeared in front of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday evening (an unusual day of the week for the first program in a subscription series). Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has performed at Tanglewood with the orchestra, but this was his Symphony Hall debut. He has been the music director of the Dallas Symphony since 2008 and has an impending responsibility as music director designate of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, where he begins his full duties in September. He offered a program consisting of two works: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Opus 19, from the height of the Classical period, and Rachmaninoff’s large, long, and lush Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27, from the closing years of the Romantic era.
The familiar face belonged to long-time favorite Emanuel Ax as the soloist in the Beethoven.
It was unusual to begin a subscription program on a Wednesday night. The normal pattern, established decades ago, was to begin on Thursday evening, continue on Friday afternoon and Saturday evening; then, if the program were to include a fourth performance — what were once the Cambridge series of concerts at Harvard but have long since moved back to Symphony Hall — it would take place on the following Tuesday. The unusual arrangement this week does not foreshadow a major change in the arrangement of concerts in Boston; it came about because of scheduling difficulties next Tuesday, so last night became a de facto “Tuesday” for subscribers.
Beethoven’s second piano concerto is less frequently performed than the other four completed and published works in this medium. In spite of Beethoven’s name embossed in the center of the Symphony Hall proscenium, and the role of his music since his own lifetime in inspiring music-making in Boston, the Opus 19 concerto did not enter the Boston Symphony’s repertory until 1948! And even then it was not in a subscription series, but a run-out concert in New Haven. Since then, of course, the concerto has been performed many times, and its presence always fascinates because it gives a view of the young composer confronting the models of his seniors and matching himself against them.
Beethoven’s second concerto is his most Mozartean; surely he had Mozart’s final concerto, K.595, in mind as a specific model, because his is not only in the same key, but also calls for the same relatively light orchestral forces, with no clarinets, which otherwise had become a standard component of the orchestra. And despite the lightly “military” touches in the main theme, it is also quietly lyrical for much of its course, both in the first movement and especially in the evocative slow movement.
Emanuel Ax’s lyricism has long been one of the most significant characteristics of his playing, along with his clear textures that allowed Beethoven’s writing — whether in the heart of the concerto or the cadenza — to make its effect most expressively. Jaap van Zweden was light on his feet with this concerto, leading a reduced orchestra in a lithe performance, clear-textured, but shaping the lines with accentual stresses to enliven them.
The Rachmaninoff symphony is a different matter. Very fully scored, it seems to emerge, darkly, from the bowels of the earth, and van Zweden began with a weightier approach, physically speaking, as if pulling the dark opening up into the light of day. During its hour-long course, the symphony passes through many different textures and moods, all of which the conductor educed with wonderful effect. The textures are often densely contrapuntal, with thematic figures from the opening motto, or hints of his favorite tune, the Dies irae, or the particularly gorgeous “love theme” that gushes forth a few times in the slow movement (reappearing as an internal counterpoint). For all this dense activity, the playing was arresting and expressive but clean in a way that allowed all those motivic figures to irradiate the sonority. For newcomers to the piece, it is a “long sit,” but the better one knows the work, the more there is to recognize and respond to, and this performance gave this listener many such delights, of which William R. Hudgins’s elegant performance of the long-breathed clarinet solo in the slow movement — which seems almost to come to a standstill as it hovered gently, gradually rising and falling in a long arc that felt as if it were being invented on the spot — deserved special notice. The brilliant gradual pile-up of descending bell-like scales in many different tempi at once that brings back the main theme in the last movement is another. The shapely and richly colorful work of this composer, who twice almost became the music director of the Boston Symphony, offered wonderful warmth for a cold winter’s night.