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Dohnanyi returns to the BSO with distinctive rendition of Ligeti

Arabella Steinbacher performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 with conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi and the BSO last night. Arabella Steinbacher performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 with conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi and the BSO last night. (Stu Rosner)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra had never performed Ligeti’s Double Concerto until last night in Symphony Hall, but the orchestra was in good hands. This week’s guest conductor is Christoph von Dohnanyi, who led the piece’s 1972 world premiere in Berlin and worked with the composer closely.

This, incidentally, is the best kind of guest conductor programming: a visiting maestro bringing repertoire in which he has something truly distinctive to contribute.

The work’s two movements are woodwind-centric, scored for flute and oboe soloists supported by an orchestra without violins. The term Double Concerto might conjure associations with iconic works by Brahms or Bach, but here the soloists play very different roles, often as the first among equals, their lines frequently embedded in the textures of the orchestra as a whole.

And what textures they were. In last night’s first movement, vast sheets of sound drifted slowly off the stage, growing in density as if layer by layer, punctuated on occasion by a downward growl from basses or a sharp percussive chord.

Ligeti also charges the orchestra’s sound with a kind of timbral electricity, produced through minutely calibrated dissonances and subtle microtonal shadings. There are localized moments of tension and release, even as a quiet sense of stillness pervades the whole.

The second movement is full of more active lines and surface motion that glides by in a blur of silvery radiance. Last night, principal flute Elizabeth Rowe and principal oboe John Ferrillo were the fine, unflappable soloists, and Dohnanyi led a performance of great textural sensitivity.

After touring Ligeti’s distant soundscapes, the program promptly returned to more conventional terrain by way of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 with the German violinist Arabella Steinbacher making her subscription debut. There was plenty to enjoy in her suave and sensitive playing, which seemed to privilege warm tonal beauty above most everything else, at the same time as there was little to truly set her apart from other young soloists on the international scene. It would be interesting and no doubt revealing to hear her again in any number of the more unusual concertos in her repertoire, including those of Glazunov, Hartmann, Schnittke, or Szymanowski.

The night ended with a rewarding account of Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, one in which Dohnanyi seemed to determine to honor this work’s high-German symphonic aspirations as well as its rustic Czech soul.

The outer movements had a driving sense of rhythmic energy; the conductor drew some gleaming playing from the brasses and from the strings a muscular earthy tone.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor

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