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Maazel returns to BSO with all-Russian program

Posted by Jeremy A. Eichler  January 21, 2011 01:04 AM

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Lorin Maazel conducts the BSO on Jan. 20. (Photo by Stu Rosner)

After some last-minute substitutions for James Levine last season, Lorin Maazel is back this week on the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium, this time as an officially scheduled guest conductor. For the occasion he has chosen an all-Russian program that steers clear of greatest hits, surveying instead three less frequently performed works: Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3, Stravinsky's Symphonic Poem "The Song of the Nightingale," and Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy." Even the Tchaikovsky, the most recently played of the three, had not been performed by the BSO in a decade.

One can also guess why it had been so long. The Suite No. 3, which the composer wrote in the period following his Fourth Symphony, is not really top-drawer Tchaikovsky and certainly lacks some of the heft and impact of his greatest symphonic music. But it does boast generous portions of richly melodic writing that were smoothly dispatched last night, with Maazel coaxing from the strings in particular an appealingly dark-hued, velvety tone, and sparking from the orchestra as a whole some tightly controlled virtuosity in the closing polonaise. The fourth movement also contains an expansive violin solo, elegantly rendered here by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and spiced with a few touches of portamento.

After intermission Stravinsky's "Song of the Nightingale," a work culled from the composer's early opera based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, was given a crisp, bright and often brilliant performance. That very crispness, the sharply delineated contours of Stravinsky's symphonic poem, made for an effective contrast with the program's final work -- Scriabin's heavily perfumed, lushly scored "Poem of Ecstasy."

Completed in 1907, Scriabin's piece is a kind of slow-burning exercise in orchestral yearning, a potent cocktail of mysticism, symbolism and sexuality that builds in its final bars to an immense sonic climax. As the BSO's program note pointed out, Scriabin first planned on titling the piece "Poème orgiaque."

Last night the score drew more vigorous leadership from Maazel than he had shown until that point. He was meticulous in his attention to flow, making sure the orchestra did not give away too much too soon, meanwhile shaping the work with a sense of inevitability towards a massive final blaze of sound. The BSO trumpets distinguished themselves on the second half, particularly Thomas Rolfs in the Scriabin and Thomas Siders in the Stravinsky.

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

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