There was less effective Beethoven at the BSO. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, director of the Dallas Symphony, led Emanuel Ax in the Piano Concerto No. 2 (actually Beethoven's first). Ax has a pearly tone, but an extremely narrow range of dynamics and color — and, therefore, of character. His haste blurs his phrasing. But his very quiet playing at the end of the slow movement was ravishing. The crowd brought him back for an encore: a Schubert Impromptu (Opus 142, No. 2). Van Zweden's lean, tensile, uncut Rachmaninoff Second Symphony won another ovation, though the famously gorgeous Adagio maybe needed to wallow in a little more schmaltz.
Then French conductor Stéphane Denève returned to lead a magically floating Ravel Mother Goose Suite that lacked a crucial sense of story-telling, a Shostakovich Fifth Symphony that, without the usual excess of sarcasm, sounded more like Mahler, and a scintillating Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds with Peter Serkin on the high wire between Stravinsky's spiky modernist harmonies and his delicate, witty bow to Bach.
Just when it seemed safe for the BSO to count on its guest conductors, the venerable 84-year-old Kurt Masur became the third to cancel this year — "due to the physical demands," he announced on his website, of Beethoven's massive Missa Solemnis (he left after four rehearsals, telling the musicians that this would have been his last Missa Solemnis; his upcoming concerts in Israel, Germany, France, and China are still scheduled). Tanglewood Festival Chorus conductor John Oliver took over. At the third and last concert, only bass-baritone Eric Owens (the unforgettable Alberich in the Met's new Ring Cycle) stood out among the four vocal soloists (who also included soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, and tenor Simon O'Neill). This was propulsive and heroically-scaled Beethoven, but much of it was too loud, too fast (with some messy entrances), muddy (even the chorus), and architecturally monolithic and unshaped. The BSO has announced that Oliver will conduct the March 6 Carnegie Hall performance.
The latest Boston Philharmonic program was planned well before music director Benjamin Zander lost his job at the New England Conservatory after inspiring young musicians there for 45 years. The two pieces on the program — Witold Lutoslawski's 1970 Cello Concerto and Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben ("a hero's life") — depict the heroic struggle between the individual artist and a bellicose and Philistine enemy.
After a prolonged ovation at Zander's entrance, he announced: "I have something to confess." One could almost hear a collective gasp. "I didn't like the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto." (Collective sigh of relief.) It was the cello soloist, Alexander Baillie, a frequent and welcome BPO guest, who encouraged Zander to reconsider this astonishing score, about which Zander spoke eloquently at the beginning of the concert, both helping to familiarize us with Lutoslawski's avant-garde techniques — aleatoric passages (conductorless and improvisational), quarter tones, nine-note chords) — and telling us the tragic story of the composer's family and their travails during World War II.
The performance was harrowing — and of unearthly beauty — as it journeyed from the 18 repeated D's marked indifferente (the composer asks for between 15 and 20) that Baillie played in the five-minute opening cello solo to the hero's final, defiantly repeated and indomitable A's. Baillie was no less remarkable in the haunting, death-ravaged slow-movement Cantilena. He was brought back for an encore, exhilarating, air-clearing Bach, the Bourée from the Third Cello Suite, played not for elegance but for invigorating dancing — as joyful in its way as the Lutsolawski was devastating.