Hardly a season has gone by the past five years without Bartók’s  Concerto for Orchestra appearing on a Symphony Hall or Tanglewood program. Frequent performances ever since  Koussevitzky led its 1944 world premiere had already made it part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s DNA. Yet you rarely hear  grumpy grumbles of the “What, that again?!?” variety, thanks in large part to the contrasting approaches of the conductors.

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Susanna Mälkki and Seong-Jin Cho
© Hilary Scott

The virtuosic demands of the score – met here with impressive ease – often overshadow the fact that this is an occasional piece, commissioned by Koussevitzky in memory of his late wife, Natalie. The somber, mournful and elegiac tints highlighted in the first three movements suggest that conductor Susanna Mälkki had that aspect in mind first and foremost. Witness the weight and Stygian color she drew from the lower strings in the first and third movements and the contrast between the funereal fugal moments at the beginning and the brighter ones at the end of the concerto, where “life-assertion” rules, as Bartók put it. Bartók’s dig at Shostakovich in the third movement, as he begins to remove the music’s mourning shroud, was good-humored rather than acerbic, with the flatulent tuba eliciting more than a few chuckles from those seated near me. Mälkki’s vigorous presence on the podium made visible what was audible. The concerto’s complex rhythmic structures were sharply defined with those of the Finale driving its cathartic jubilation.

Seong-Jin Cho’s composure and quiet virtuosity in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major might have seemed reticent to some, or a captivating way to draw in the listener to others. Whatever, there was no denying the skill and accuracy on display. Notes seemed to emanate from his fingertips without effort or any hint that anything had been struck to create them. They didn’t sparkle, but had an unusual opaque quality. Cho’s trills were even and assured whether played loudly or softly and the rapid passage work impressed with both its speed and articulation. Mälkki opted for a rich full sound from the strings which made the orchestra seem larger than it was, contrasting while avoiding any imbalance with the soloist. The two oboes’ and two horns’ unique contributions were given space in the string mix to tickle the ear with their sonority. Cho’s encore – Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, Op.9 no.2 – unfolded in the same quiet and deliberate way as the Mozart, but almost like a lullaby.