The last time Dima Slobodeniouk led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in October 2019, he presided over an imaginative program: Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter, the Elgar Cello Concerto, and Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. For this week’s BSO’s concerts, the Russian guest conductor chose more conventional fare: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. Yet on Thursday the Tchaikovsky, with Italian guest soloist Beatrice Rana, was superbly unconventional, and Slobodeniouk’s dark, deep Seventh was major Dvořák all the way.
Nothing says “warhorse” like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It’s a virtuoso showpiece that critics tend to write off as lacking serious structure, particularly in the big first movement. Actually, the concerto’s structure is a bit of Tchaikovskyan sleight-of-hand. Nothing could be grander or more romantic than the Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso’s celebrated polonaise-like opening statement. Those first three minutes, in D-flat major, constitute a miniature sonata form: orchestra exposition, piano exposition, cadenza, coda. An unorthodox but promising start. The pianist continues with an unpretentious Ukrainian folk song (da-da da-da da-da da-da) that surely has to be a transition. It’s even in the appropriate relative minor, B-flat. And it leads to a pair of engaging themes in A-flat major, perfect for a concerto with a main theme in D-flat. But at some point during this first movement’s 20 or so minutes, you start to suspect that that wonderful D-flat theme isn’t coming back. Worse, the recapitulation reprises the two secondary themes in B-flat major, making it clear that B-flat was the intended key all along, and that the introductory D-flat section was just that, an introduction.
The fun doesn’t stop there. The Andantino semplice slow movement is back to D-flat major, with a Prestissimo middle section in, of all things, D minor. And the Allegro con fuoco rondo finale begins in B-flat minor before switching to D-flat major for the lush second subject. Perhaps the concerto’s magnificent grand opening will come back after all? No, it’s that second subject, now in B-flat major, that brings the piece home. In other words, Tchaikovsky keeps you guessing whether the concerto, whose very first few bars are in B-flat minor, is going to wind up in D-flat major or B-flat major.
Then there’s Tchaikovsky’s revisions. These came in stages and were mostly minor. But there are some significant differences between the original 1875 version (which had its premiere in Boston) and the now standard version that was published after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. Those great block chords for the piano in bar 6 were originally arpeggiated, which gives a very different effect. The slow movement’s Prestissimo was originally an Allegro vivace assai. There was no cut in the finale, and no fermata at the end of the piano’s cadenza, which itself was less acrobatic. Did Tchaikovsky, who worked on the piece as late as 1888, authorize these changes? Or was his student Aleksandr Ziloti responsible? The score from which Tchaikovsky conducted the concerto just days before his death shows no sign of them. Kirill Gerstein, for one, has argued that pianists should be performing the concerto in its 1879 form.
Rana’s riveting interpretation Thursday swept those considerations away. Born in Copertino, in the southeastern corner of Italy, the 28-year-old is already a known quantity. She won the Silver Medal and the Audience Award at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and her recordings include not just the Tchaikovsky concerto (coupled with the Prokofiev Second) but also Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Schumann’s Symphonic Études, and Chopin’s Opus 24 Préludes. She made her Boston debut in a Celebrity Series recital in February 2019 at Longy’s Pickman Hall, playing Chopin’s Opus 25 Études, Ravel’s Miroirs, and Guido Agosti’s arrangement of Stravinsky’s Firebird.
In a January 2020 concert in Stockholm where she performed the Tchaikovsky concerto, Rana did arpeggiate the opening chords. Here, however, she played block chords, as she does on her 2015 recording. She and Slobodeniouk didn’t overstate those first three minutes, which made for a proper introduction, though there was a world of weight and introspection and delicacy in the piano’s exposition.
Rana certainly has what Harold Schonberg used to call the three T’s: technique, tone, and temperament. The first movement’s second subject group, which dominates the development, has two themes. Slobodeniouk began the first one at a fair clip; when her turn came, Rana grew thoughtful. After Slobodeniouk switched to the second theme, Rana became passionate about the first one. It was if conductor and soloist were exchanging ideas. They built two powerful climaxes out of the first theme (with, along the way, a poignant oboe solo from Keisuke Wakao), and each time Rana spent a blissful eternity winding them down. Her astonishing coda was gossamer at first, then volcanic, then gossamer again. It reminded me of her recording of the Symphonic Études; she pushes Schumann’s alter egos of Eusebius and Florestan to the limit, but even when she’s poetic Eusebius, the melodic line never sags, and when she’s impulsive Florestan, you can still hear every note.
Matters were more straightforward in the Andantino semplice, which began with a bright flute solo from Elizabeth Klein. The Prestissimo was very prestissimo but with no loss of clarity. I don’t know that the original tempo marking would make much difference here, since one performer’s Allegro vivace assai will always be another’s Prestissimo. In the middle of this section the violas and cellos introduce a French café song, “Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire,” and even at their very fast waltz tempo, you could still sing along. Rana’s transition back to “Tempo I” made the most of Tchaikovsky’s “ritenuto molto” without ever seeming self-indulgent. The Allegro con fuoco finale was very fuoco, even the second subject, but Rana’s passagework remained as crystalline as ever, and her cadenza thundered without any hint of banging. The pause between cadenza and coda — which the music seems to invite — was a discreet one; the coda itself sped toward a jubilant climax.
Standing ovations have become almost de rigueur at Symphony Hall, but Thursday’s audience was unusually fervent. The single encore, Debussy’s demanding 90-second Étude 6 pour les huit doigts, was just icing on the cake.
Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, which had its premiere in London in 1885, is considered by some his greatest. Those people tend to be the same ones who consider it his most Brahmsian symphony. That might or might not be a compliment the composer would have appreciated. The symphony began as a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, which had already performed a number of his works. On the first page of the manuscript, Dvořák wrote, “This main theme occurred to me upon the arrival at the station of the ceremonial train from Pest in 1884.” The train from Hungary was carrying Czechs to Prague for a performance at the National Theater — a performance that was followed by a pro-Czech demonstration on behalf of a people who were still subjects of the Austrian Empire. Dvořák’s goal was to write a symphony that would be the equal of those written by Germanic composers like Beethoven and Brahms — but a Czech symphony. His approach is summed up in the main theme of the third-movement Scherzo, which superimposes a Czech furiant (in the violins and violas) over a Viennese waltz (in the cellos, basses, and bassoons). The two cultures dance together, but what you primarily hear is the furiant.
The Allegro maestoso begins with that “train station” first theme ambling indecisively in the violas and cellos over a dark pedal D in the basses, French horns, and timpani. It makes for an uneasy start, and the three-note cadence at the end of the phrase asks a question that will hang over the symphony. Slobodeniouk kept this first movement crisp and compact, with winds well balanced against the strings, in a clean-textured, rhythmically alert reading that did conjure Brahms at times but also Bruckner at others. A brief horn solo from James Sommerville led to a powerful restatement of the first theme and then a pastoral second theme that featured Elizabeth Rowe’s nightingale flute. The development set the anguished first theme against the consoling second; the recapitulation grew militant, as if a Czech hero were being recalled from the countryside. It all faded away with that three-note question.
The Poco Adagio starts as a pilgrimage, winds praying over pizzicato strings. The flutes and oboes broach an uplifting theme; the first violins and the cellos look askance. Dvořák had recently lost his mother; he put “From the sad years” at the end of his sketch of the movement. The sadness hangs in the air, even as the strings soar and the brass sing out. Slobodeniouk was bracing and clear-eyed here, fresh air with equal parts sunshine and clouds, straight through to Wakao’s closing oboe lament.
The Scherzo, marked Vivace, began at a relaxed clip, as if furiant and waltz were best friends, but as the timpani grew increasingly ferocious, the Czech political situation began to suggest itself. Confirmation came in Slobodeniouk’s Finale, where, after an apprehensive few bars of introduction, a series of marches developed, complete with trumpet fanfares, that led into a polka-like second theme (more Bruckner!). Soon even the polka was marching, or perhaps marching and dancing at once. The development, with its spooky clarinets, plunged into a haunted wood before the march and polka restarted and the battle was joined. Slobodeniouk kept the focus tight to the finish, where a plagal cadence, turning D minor into D major, seemed to say “Amen” to the Czech nation.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.