There was a sprinkling of empty seats in Symphony Hall last night but once word gets out about the extraordinary collaboration of the 22-year-old German violinist Julia Fischer with the 76-year-old Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the remaining performances are likely to become a hot ticket.
Fischer has been winning competitions since she was 6 years old and now enjoys a major international career in concert and in the recording studio. Like her famous predecessor Anne-Sophie Mutter, Fischer has posed for artificially glamorous photographs, but nothing about her or her playing recalls the permafrost that surrounds Mutter.
She is an attractive, modest presence onstage and a good listener -- she stood in front of the orchestra but she played from within it. She has a warm, sweet tone and tremendous chops, meeting all the virtuoso challenges spectacularly but offering them as integral to the musical ideas. She is not presenting herself, but trying to reveal the music, creating a vivid overall impression without investing in a lot of momentary superficial effects. The magical opening of the concerto was very touching in its plain-speaking poetry, direct and honest, and she really romped through the finale, famously described by the musicologist Donald Francis Tovey as a ''polonaise for polar bears." The entire orchestra joined the audience in applauding her.
Berglund is by common consent the greatest living interpreter of Sibelius, and his recording of the concerto with Ida Haendel is a standard point of reference. He is now in poor health and an attendant helped him onstage and up to his high chair on the podium. He holds the baton in his left hand, which sometimes descends well below his knees, so the beat must be invisible to about half the orchestra. This led to some moments of imprecision, but tidiness is not the most essential musical virtue, and Berglund never lost his grip on the character of the music. It was moving to watch youth and age working together to create the concerto anew.
Shostakovich's most famous symphonies are probably played more often than people want to hear them, which makes his more demanding works like the Eighth Symphony a pretty hard sell. The piece is long and almost unrelievedly -- and unbearably -- tragic; like many of Shostakovich's works it is uneven, although it is hardly his fault that a subsequent television composer borrowed its climactic moment for the theme to ''Perry Mason."
Berglund's engagement was total -- you could hear him talking and singing -- and the orchestra really poured it on. There were splendid solos from nearly all the principals; one should praise some less often heard, like piccolo Linda Toote, English horn Robert Sheena, clarinetist Scott Andrews, and in a particularly slithery solo, bass clarinetist Craig Nordstrom. Berglund and the orchestra communicated all of Shostakovich's response to the horror of war. The symphony is not comfortable to hear, but we need to.