Two other BSO concerts, each deviating in some way from what was originally announced, became celebrations of their featured performers. At nearly 45, German violinist Christian Tetzlaff is at the top of his game, a highly regarded international figure renowned not only for his finesse but also for his challenging repertoire. He has appeared frequently with the BSO, but this time the entire program was built around him. He played a charming Mozart rondo, the gorgeous Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2, and the world premiere of the complex, sometimes puzzling new Harrison Birtwistle Violin Concerto. The Bartók was large-scaled, breathlessly exhilarating, yet honey-toned, and Tetzlaff entered into the fascinating Birtwistle — almost more a concerto for orchestra than violin, though the violin hardly ever stops — as if he were being sucked into a kaleidoscope. Assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger stepped in at relatively short notice for the ailing James Levine and with style and panache kept everything together, though the orchestra lacked that Levine third dimension and remained more accompanist than equal partner.
American conductor John Nelson has led many great orchestras, but he doesn't currently have one of his own. He made his BSO debut at Tanglewood in 1981 and returned there three times in the 1990s. Last week, he finally made it to Symphony Hall, leading in a vigorous, arm-flapping athletic style two contrasting Liszt tone poems. Mephisto Waltz No. 1 was a bit sloppy, oddly under-colored, and too rushed for a waltz. The more solemn Orpheus got a soupy performance that at least afforded some good BSO players a chance to shine. That included both harpists, since the harp in this piece represents Orpheus's lyre.
But Nelson was only second fiddle to the superstar guest: Russian piano prodigy Evgeny Kissin (now 39!). Instead of what had been announced at the beginning of the season, the rarely heard Scriabin Piano Concerto, he began with a piece he's been performing since he was at least 12, Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. And instead of Chopin's pulsating youthful spontaneity, we got Kissin's dreamy soft-pedaling, which sounded as if he'd played this piece once too often, though the last minute or so finally sprang to life. So began the Kissin love-in.
He was the 28th pianist to play Grieg's warhorse Piano Concerto with the BSO since it was first programmed in 1881, but he played it in public for the first time only weeks ago. Dinu Lipatti's landmark 1947 recording, my touchstone, is a mysterious and breathtaking combination of the bitingly icy (Norwegian) and the warmly, unaffectedly touching. Kissin combined the droopily precious with the pompously inflated, downplaying Grieg's underlying element of dance. An idea rarely seemed to grow out of what had come before. A little this-a, a little that-a. Kissin is, of course, a phenomenal technician with a warm (one might also say monotonous), heavily pedaled pearly tone. But he always seems to hold something back — some connection to real feeling. Does he ever play with all his resources? Thursday night, the vociferous audience let him go only after he'd played two encores. The second was Chopin's glittering E-minor Waltz, but it was the first, Grieg's colorful, playful, grotesque "Aus dem Karneval," in which Kissin actually delivered all these qualities — the closest he got all night to entering the heart of a piece.