Fresh from her pre-recorded performance at Barack Obama's inauguration, the vivacious and brilliant Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero was back with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic, the group with whom she made her spectacular Boston debut in 2005 playing Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. But in her Rachmaninov Third, I didn't hear most of the qualities I had admired earlier. Instead of a singing, dynamically flexible tone, I heard a lot of rushed, stiff pounding, mostly too loud and mostly — but not entirely — technically phenomenal. Nothing moved me (as almost everything had in Garrick Ohlsson's nuanced and touching rendition with the BSO under Robert Spano in 2004). Montero spent enough time adjusting her piano bench to get a laugh from the crowd at Jordan Hall, and she made further adjustments after she started. Perhaps she never quite found her comfort zone. After the huge ovation, she returned for one of her famous improvisations, though she seemed a bit reluctant after the "30-course meal" of the concerto. Asked for a theme, Zander volunteered the concerto's opening theme. "Didn't we have enough of that?" she joked. But she was a good sport, offering instead of her usual trip from Bach to jazz a kind of solo fantasy that was both an unsettling and an imaginative take on Rachmaninov.
The highlight of the concert was Witold Lutoslawski's dazzling 1954 Concerto for Orchestra, a three-movement work based largely on Polish folk themes in order to appease the censors who had condemned his First Symphony. (He also subversively quoted the theme that another politically endangered composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, used as his own autobiographical signature.) Zander and the orchestra, here an orchestra of soloists, responded eloquently to the huge technical demands, playing with both gutsy power and, especially in the central Scherzo (Capriccio notturno), the most delicate "Queen Mab" transparency. In his pre-concert talk, Zander begged the audience not to leave after the Rachmaninov. The vast majority stayed to roar their approval.
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