By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 2, 2008

Over the years, Boston groups led by conductors devoted to Bach — David Hoose, John Harbison, the late Craig Smith — have provided radiant, illuminating, and devastating performances of the St. Matthew. This one wasn’t in that league.

Haitink returned the following week with Hungarian pianist András Schiff in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, the orchestration of which was just 17 bars short of complete when the composer died. Schiff and Haitink share a restrained emotional temperature, but it worked beautifully in this piece, which if anything demands restraint and transparency rather than the deepest interpretive understanding or letting-it-all-hang-out bravura. The slow-movement hymn, Adagio religioso, had more quiet spirituality than the entire St. Matthew Passion, and its mysterious “night music,” with its chirruping muted trumpets and other creaturely woodwind noises, was a particularly magical passage.

Schiff plays this not only with beautifully rounded tone, full-bodied (not pearly or dewy — glittering rather than glistening), but with a Hungarian accent, his rhythmical inflections letting the music speak its native language. His performance was close to impeccable — rippling in its freedom yet hewing close to Bartók’s memorable melodies. He even injected a touch of Gershwin in the Allegro vivace third movement. Haitink and the orchestra were skillful and sympathetic accompanists.

Haitink’s Schubert Symphony No. 9 — the Great — was not quite on this order of success. It was beautifully played and quite grand, and the audience showered it with grateful appreciation. In the crucial writing for oboe, Haitink was lucky to have the BSO’s extraordinary principal oboist, John Ferrillo, especially in his dialogue with the rest of the orchestra in the first movement and leading the ambiguous march in the slow movement, a combination of the heroic and the poignant. (Where are these troops going? Will they ever return?) In the opening movement, I’d give a gold star to the trombones, which seemed to emerge from a great distance and get closer and closer. There wasn’t exactly anything wrong with the rest of the performance. I’d have preferred James Levine’s airier seating arrangement, with antiphonal first and second violins, but I admired Haitink’s subtle crescendos, and the way he created a sense of a world turning on its axis. Yet he also gave us something conventional and predictable — comfortable, without that ineffable frisson of the uncanny that’s one of Schubert’s essential characteristics and that one hears in the very greatest Schubert performances.

Golden-voiced soprano Dominique Labelle dazzled the audience at Jordan Hall in an intimate Handel and Haydn Society concert led with shapely, sensitive musicality by H&H concertmaster Daniel Stepner. The piece she sang was one of Handel’s early Roman cantatas, Il delirio amoroso (“Amorous delirium”), a musically enchanting if generic affair (possibly a “cantata à clef” concealing the identities of real people) in which Chloris laments that she’s been abandoned by Thyrsis both before and after his death and throws into the stew tragic rhetoric, a mad scene, and a warbling hymn to the breeze. In one repeated passage, Chloris holds onto a high note forever while the solo violinist goes nuts, and Labelle was effortlessly thrilling. She’s one of those rare and cherishable artists for whom there’s no gulf between passionate emotional conviction and technical control. (Before the repeat concert two days later, she took ill and was replaced by the superb young soprano Kristen Watson in a different Handel piece. That was the performance the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler attended, and he gave Watson high praise.)

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