Transylvania, liminal land of myths and mists, was György Ligeti’s homeland. Its lurid history, its rich mix of Hungarian, Romany and Romanian traditions, its folklore left lasting impressions on the budding composer which he carried with him to the conservatory in Budapest and to the Folklore Institute in Bucharest, where he spent much time transcribing recordings made in the field of Hungarian and Romanian folk songs.

Hilary Hahn, Gustavo Gimeno and the Boston Symphony perform Dvořák © Robert Torres
Hilary Hahn, Gustavo Gimeno and the Boston Symphony perform Dvořák
© Robert Torres

Concert Românesc (1951), one of his earliest surviving works, could easily carry the subtitle “Scenes from My Childhood” imbued as it is with colorful reminisces of the itinerant musicians with their fiddles and bagpipes and the village bands of his youth. Several themes derive from his transcriptions, but the bulk of the music is Ligeti’s own stylized version of Transylvanian folk music. The influence of Kodály and Bartók is strong. Ligeti, the modernist, only winks at us in the two parts of the second section with his use of natural tuning, braying dissonance, and spectral string effects. Each of the the two sections begins with a slower, more vocally inflected movement suggestive of nature and the the brooding Carpathians yielding to rowdy, rustic dance rhythms in the next. All four movements are played without pause and call for an array of fiddling prowess from the concert master which leapfrogs cultures and practices

For Gustavo Gimeno, making his Symphony Hall debut, the Concert is something of a calling card; he knows its ins and outs well. Keen and buoyant in the fast movements, his baton sharply traced the serpentine folk rhythms. The two slower movements served as respites, shaded pastorals with wistful tints, the Adagio remarkable for the two haunting horns (one in the wings) calling to each other – like the Alpine Horns Ligeti heard so often echoing in the Carpathians – and pillowed by the whisper of an eerie flutter of violins playing tremolo sul ponticello. The Molto vivace blossomed into a bacchic frenzy of gypsy fiddling, driving to a final cadence momentarily interrupted by the return of the echoing horns and the concertmaster alone this time providing the tremolo. Associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova sat first chair for this program running the gamut of genres and style Ligeti asks for with virtuosity and panache.

A detour to the northwest brought both the fiddle and the folklore to Bohemia, land of the dumka and the furiant, for Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor with Hilary Hahn the probing, fierce yet refined soloist. Unlike most concertos, the orchestra provides no exposition. It blasts out a stumbling attempt at a furiant truncated by the violin transforming its lame approximation into a rhapsodic cadenza; the orchestra stumbles anew but the violin insists, expanding on the thematic material it introduced. Hahn treated this exchange in a playful, teasing manner, as if saying, “C’mon guys, lighten up! This is the way it goes.” The bravura which followed sounded almost improvisational. The Allegro leads directly into the meditative Adagio with its aria-like melody. Hahn caressed the tune softly and songfully, phrasing sensitively then uncorked an effervescent, coltish Allegro giocoso with the furiant finally having its say. One of Hahn’s most favored encores, the Gigue from Bach’s Partita no. 3 in E major, brought the dancing to a jaunty conclusion.

Much used to be made of Schumann’s orchestration and its alleged clumsiness and density. But the Leipzig Gewandhaus, which premiered three of his four symphonies, never numbered more than 45, nor had more than 12 first violins. Reducing the orchestra and taking a light, singing approach as Gimeno did for his Symphony no. 1 in B flat “Spring” shows that Schumann’s orchestration as idiosyncratic as it may be is no impediment but yields a striking palette of verdant colors. From the opening fanfare, Schumann’s “summons to awakening”, to the festive full flowering of Spring of the closing Allegro, Gimeno had the symphony pulsing with a vernal vitality. Mother Nature must have been listening and approved as much as the audience, gifting an unusual spring-like afternoon, making overcoats suddenly superfluous.