The following week, the young Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena led an even more famous celebrity, Yo-Yo Ma, in Dvorák's familiarly luscious Cello Concerto. Mena also squeezed both violin sections onto one side of the stage, though on the other side he placed the cello section in front of rather than behind the violas. Maybe Mena had a point in putting Ma directly opposite the cello section, but I didn't hear it. Again the orchestral playing seemed a little muddy and sluggish. Ma, on the other hand, played with freshness and the loveliest singing tone — less heroic than most performances of this piece, but more tender and intimate, and full of appealing personal inflection.
It's taken the BSO 94 years to get to its very first performance of a 20th-century classic, Béla Bartók's complete 1917 fairy-tale ballet, The Wooden Prince. This is a sometimes enchanting score for very large orchestra (including three saxophones), full of colorful passages, especially in the percussion (xylophone, castanets, triangle, and even tapping bows), depicting the dancing puppet, whom the infatuated prince creates to attract the attention of an indifferent princess. Mena and the orchestra were better here, but a greater sense of narrative might have kept the piece from seeming overlong. I hope the BSO reschedules this music, at least in the form of one of Bartók's orchestral suites.
After Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yo-Yo Ma at the BSO, another celebrity string player was the central figure in a remarkably satisfying and exploratory chamber concert that didn't take place at one of our usual celebrity venues. Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, who'll be back with the BSO later this month (October 27-29, and November 1) playing Schumann's Violin Concerto at Symphony Hall, turned up in the more intimate environment of the Longy School's Pickman Hall, in Longy's Unique Voices series. He played alone as well as with piano and cello, both as duos and as a trio. His solo was the staggering D-minor Chaconne, from Bach's Partita No. 2, one of the biggest, most complex movements for a solo instrument. Kremer programmed this as a response to — and extension of — the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov's 2002 Homage to J.S. Bach, which both commandingly and quietly quotes from the Chaconne. For a moment, I thought the violin was electronically amplified, but the reverb actually came from Andrius Zlabys's ghostly offstage piano, subtly echoing and adding its own harmonies to the violin.
Begun without a pause after the Silvestrov, the Chaconne was masterful and intriguing. The greatest live performance I've ever heard was on the same stage, four years ago, by Ida Haendel during Longy's ambitious symposium honoring the memory of the early 20th-century Hungarian violin virtuoso and pedagogue Carl Flesch. Haendel played it as one gradually evolving continuum leading to an overwhelming conclusion. Kremer emphasized the way it's a series of variations, each as different as possible, moving from rich melodic warmth to abrasive violence, delicate high notes to full-throated lows, always full of feeling but never sentimental. I'm not sure it added up to Haendel's singular statement, but it was intense and gripping.