Risks abound in the presence of standard repertoire for both audiences and artists alike: that adage, “familiarity breeds contempt,” comes to mind. But in the right hands, staid repertoire can yield new insights to the inquisitive delight of an attentive and discerning audience. Such a recreative act happened with unpretentious mastery of craft at the BSO on Friday afternoon; conductor Joana Mallwitz and pianist Anna Vinnitskaya made powerhouse Boston debuts in works by Kodály, Tchaikovsky, and Schubert.
Enter Mallwitz: cleaved blonde hair cut to a short bob, dressed in an authoritative yet seemingly laid-back black outfit. Harkening the edgy spirit of Berlin, her new musical podium as chief conductor and artistic director of that city’s prestigious Konzerthausorchester, Mallwitz opened with the Zigeuner declamations that start Kodály’s Dances of Galánta.
Mallwitz’s clear ictus carved phrases of brilliant rhapsodic colors interspersed with expressive instrumental solos. A piece with such a freely associative nature, such as the Kodály, surely poses a test for orchestra and guest conductor alike. One must weave transitions with lucidity while avoiding beat-heaviness so that larger shapes and arches may emerge. Moments of legato mixed with an intense rhythmic drive describe Mallwitz’s beat; her attention sharply focused on the moment, as she coaxed every micro-phrase to accumulate into a larger arc. In what would become clearer throughout the course of the concert, Mallwitz and the BSO tethered closely in a joint achievement of orchestral poetry.
Surely, it is the mark of an experienced master to easily change her role from commanding leader to dutiful liege of an equally magnanimous piano soloist. Mallwitz advocated for Vinnitskaya with deference and Kammeradschaft. As the most dangerous work on offer for the afternoon, dangerous only because of its ubiquity, would Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto allow the two debutantes to cultivate a fresh take? Quite simply, yes.
Vinnitskaya commanded with vociferous muscularity in the lower register, matched with crystalline sheen in the upper. A seemingly smaller figure to that of statuesque Mallwitz, Vinnitskaya displayed on her face that which she intently conveyed in sound. Some might posit these facial movements as eccentric affectations, but we really know they are simply the joyful byproduct of an illustrative and intense, all-consuming concentration.
The famous D-flat major opening of the first movement (sadly only heard just this once) transitions to the minor mode in a pastiche of scherzando and lyrical dream-like sections (the latter being particularly reminiscent of similar moments found in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor , and maybe also that of Grieg). Vinnitskaya communicated directly during the solo cadenzas intermixed between the various textural sections of Scene One. The irresistible first movement concluded with general audience applause. Vinnitskaya assuredly dazzled with her virtuosic, supple, and facile musicianship.
The Andantino semplice cleansed the palate as Vinnitskaya channeled melodious lyricism throughout this intermezzo. Swooning and spritely keys paired alongside solos of the same melodious tune by cellist Oliver Aldort, and oboist John Ferrillo. The final burst of sheer fire arrived in the Allegro con fuoco: tension built in consecutive waves until the final lyrical declamation harkened the glorious affirmation before the coda. The perennial crowd pleaser ignited audience passion once again. Vinnitskaya rewarded us with a sumptuous miniature of quintessential Russian color in Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau Op. 33, No.2 in C Major (his 150th birthday happens this year).
Schubert’s rollicking, immense Ninth Symphony, “The Great,” provided Mallwitz et al a great opportunity for orchestral expression: brisk, rhythmic, scintillating with brilliance, and at times harmonically devastating. Mallwitz conducted from memory, as she had earlier for the Kodály. No doubt this cerebral command of musical structure allowed for an economy of motion which nevertheless highlighted those signal elements of Schubert’s masterpiece. Her temperance and restraint summoned the seemingly multi-dimensional affect of Schubert’s work.
The first movement chorale-introduction and main body unfolded as a stream of consciousness: Beethovenian rhythmic drive mixed with Schubertian songfulness. Mallwitz captured details and dynamic contrasts that drew us ever-forward through the narrative. Long phrases spun through ineffable pps, especially during the first movement’s recapitulation, sounded brilliant. The trombone section gleamed as religious penitents.
In the massive A Minor second movement, the wrath of God seemingly came down like lightening only to be assuaged post-fermata, with Schubert’s sad-happy lyricism. The Scherzo and Allegro vivace tarantella brimmed with supercharged energy. Mallwitz’s compact baton motions quivered as clear indication of the outward rambunctiousness. The joint mastery earned a standing ovation.
These two powerhouse musicians certainly debuted with poise and élan, recreating standard works in a way that makes a compelling case for the enduring musical virtues of the Canon.