Zacharias leads the BSO from the bench and the podium
Orchestral gigantism has taken the week off. On last night’s BSO program, there were no deathless Wagnerian sea captains, no grand Mahlerian resurrections, no operatic probings of the nuclear age. Just old “Papa’’ Haydn, represented by two symphonies (Nos. 80 and 95), and Mozart, represented by two piano concertos (Nos. 15 and 16). The fine German pianist and conductor Christian Zacharias attended to both. The BSO’s forces were relatively scaled back in size, and the evening’s best moments had the feel of chamber music.
For most of the night the year was 1784, to be precise. Or that’s at least when Haydn wrote his Symphony No. 80, which opened the program, and Mozart wrote these two piano concertos, which turned out to be the evening’s highlight. Zacharias led from the keyboard, his back to the audience, his Steinway angled into the middle of the orchestra. Its placement felt emblematic of the performances as a whole, which had a beautifully integrated quality between soloist and ensemble.
In the Piano Concerto No. 15, Zacharias brought out the score’s lovely communicative qualities, conversing with woodwinds, conspiring with strings. His playing and his general connection with the orchestra had that appealing, unmediated directness that is ultimately the best argument for conducting from the piano bench. Likewise in the Piano Concerto No. 16. Here the solo part was dispatched with ample virtuosity but its flourishes were most often put to the service of musical sweep and gesture rather than lofty keyboard magniloquence.
Haydn’s symphonies unfortunately seem to be slipping out of the repertoire of most big orchestras while they are at the same time being claimed as the province of period instrument groups. The BSO had played the Symphony No. 80 only once before in its history, in 1944, and it had not played the Symphony No. 95 since 1982. All went relatively smoothly last night. Zacharias is more commanding as a pianist than he is as a straight conductor, and the orchestra simply does not play enough Haydn to self-generate really stylish or revelatory performances, but both works had energy and élan, and the program cohered nicely as a whole. The BSO returns to Haydn in February, with the Symphony No. 59.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.