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Music Review

BSO improvises with eloquent performance of Bartok’s final work

Abbado and Serkin step in to fill program

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 11, 2011

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Even by recent Boston Symphony Orchestra standards, this week’s program required some major administrative improvisation, after both conductor (James Levine) and soloist (Maurizio Pollini) withdrew.

The Mozart-Schoenberg pairing these two had devised looked extremely promising, but it was also the kind of program that would have required its original personnel to be fully realized. So the BSO made the logical choice and started from scratch with this week’s repertoire.

The orchestra brought in the Italian conductor Roberto Abbado (Claudio Abbado’s nephew) to preside over Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 as well as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and he partnered with pianist Peter Serkin in Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto.

Last night, it came together reasonably well given the circumstances. Most distinctive was the Bartok, a remarkable work the composer wrote at the very end of his life as a gift for his wife, a pianist, to perform after his death. The final 17 bars were left incomplete and were later finished by Bartok’s colleague Tibor Serly.

Compared to the composer’s first two piano concertos, it is a work that speaks in a gentler, more intimate tone, notable from its very first bars. The pointed percussive qualities of Bartok’s other forays in this genre, with their densely knotted chords and irruptive runs, feel quite distant here, as lambent strings greet the piano’s first entrance, a line at once open and singing.

The slow movement — marked Adagio religioso — begins with a chorale of otherworldly tranquility, indebted to the luminous slow movement of Beethoven’s A-minor Quartet (Op. 132).

Abbado here was at his best in drawing from the BSO strings textures of uncommon sensitivity and refinement.

Serkin too played with lucidity and great eloquence in this middle movement, and in the concerto as a whole. The outer movements benefited in equal parts from this soloist’s incisive technique and musical intelligence.

Prior to the Bartok, Abbado’s Haydn had energy, vigor, and moments of impressive dynamic control, though a few of the grandly scaled swoops and flourishes in his conducting seemed to hinder more than they helped.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, closing the program, received a robust and muscular account, with tempos at times too fast to achieve maximum impact.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Roberto Abbado, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night (repeats tonight and tomorrow night)