When orchestra members smile, it’s a sure sign something special is happening. Everyone was all smiles Friday afternoon in Symphony Hall when pianist Martin Helmchen joined Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony for a program of Beethoven and Mahler which featured individualistic, refreshing takes on two familiar pieces, the Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor and the Symphony no. 1 in D major.

Martin Helmchen © Giorgia Bertazzi
Martin Helmchen
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Helmchen discharged the initial phrases of Beethoven’s exposition with the report of a loud, No! A fierce rebuke to Nelsons’ calm and sober shaping of the same phrases opening the concerto, they spurred the Allegro con brio on a wild, sinewy ride with the pianist in the saddle galloping like a man possessed. Sharp accents, emphatic phrasing, and rat-a-tat runs propelled the movement forward on Helmchen’s vigorous fingerwork alone. He didn’t shy from the pedal either, hewing great blocks of sound with minimal effort. The contrast between this wisp of a man and the volume he could summon bolstered the dramatic effect. An astonishing display of control and virtuosity, it’s a wonder piano and pianist didn’t spontaneously combust. Some of the violins stared in awe; other players just smiled. The audience was astounded.

Beethoven famously played this concerto’s première without writing out his part. To the dismay of his page-turner, the score on the music rack was blank save for an occasional cryptic indication only the composer could decode. Helmchen restored something of the improvisational quality of that first performance to his soulful and elegantly sculpted Largo. He displayed the same masterful touch with the softer side of the dynamic range as he did with the louder, while shading the timbre of the notes from liquid to crystal. Notes and phrases would taper until they floated off like a shimmering bubble in the air. The Rondo combined the strengths and expressive variety of the preceding two movements, wildness transformed to joy but still glowing with a divine fire. Pent-up applause erupted in a standing ovation.

Nelsons and the orchestra have just returned from a weeklong tour of Japan in which Mahler’s First, the main piece on this season’s first subscription program, figured prominently. They have succeeded in forging a probing reading shorn of the usual rhetoric, powerful and refulgent. From the initial, shimmering A to the glare of the closing chorale with all eight horns on their feet, the play of light and dark, loud and soft, fast and slow, and the shifting moods they illustrate suffused the four movements. For Nelsons spacing and pacing were paramount. He lingered over the melodic fragments, the fanfares, and the cuckoo calls which open the symphony creating distinct, self-contained episodes. With a gradual increase in tempo and shift in rhythm, the cuckoo call became the most insistent and segued into the ambling gait of the main theme, imported from Mahler’s cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer. Nelsons maintained a tensile, yet elastic line throughout which allowed him to spread and slow certain passages almost to a halt and dramatize those moments, particularly in the final movement where the music goes to pieces, without sacrificing momentum.

In the second movement, he leaned on the first beat of the Ländler emphasizing its rustic quality in contrast to the light-footed, lilting Trio. Rubato added an element of swing to the dances. At one point, with right arm raised and his left crooked in towards his swaying body, he seemed to have taken the music as his dance partner. The dancing carried over into the pointed irony of the third movement with the klezmer music taking on a jazzy quality alongside the puckish Frère Jacques funeral march. An immediate explosion of hellish pandemonium detonated after the fade-out of the dirge set the fourth movement on a tumultuous ebb and flow of false starts, aborted codas, and flashbacks to episodes from the first movement before finally building to a pealing paean.

Christoph Dohnányi was originally scheduled to lead a much different program with works by Bach, Bartók and Janáček framing the Beethoven, but the lingering effects of last year’s fall kept him from traveling. Substituting the Mahler might have been expedient, but it also afforded the opportunity to experience this orchestra and its conductor at the top of their game, playing their hearts out with joy and unanimity of purpose.