The Boston Symphony opened the second half of its season with two favored composers, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and a familiar face on the podium: Marcelo Lehninger, who spent 2010-2015 with the orchestra, first as assistant then as associate conductor. Unfortunately, the opportunity to hear Nelson Freire in one of his few appearances with orchestra this year was lost to a shoulder injury. Javier Perianes, who recently played all the Beethoven piano concertos with the London Philharmonic, took over the Emperor.

Marcelo Lehninger conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

The overture to Beethoven’s only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, gives little indication of the sixteen numbers to follow capturing instead the spirit of this Enlightenment version of the myth which casts Prometheus as both the creator of humanity and its guide to fullness through the arts, along with an assortment of other teachers. The series of chords which open the overture are Promethean in their transgression of traditional harmonic practice, creating a key different than the rest of the overture, while the racing Allegro which dominates prefigures the festive music of the ballet’s finale in which Prometheus’ creatures, now completely animated, finally dance. Lehninger broadly spaced those opening chords, endowing them with dramatic weight and purpose and the creatures danced with preternatural lightness and fluidity. He also maintained a chamber-music weight and balance amongst the various sections of the reduced orchestra to the particular benefit of the woodwinds whose contrasting colors stood out against the strings. Despite a clear beat, though, the performance was slow to gather itself.

The same balance, along with a frugal use of vibrato, characterized the accompaniment to Perianes’ refined virtuoso pianism and pensive, introspective interpretation of the Emperor. Arpeggios and trills rippled with crystal clarity while phrasing, dynamics, and rubato allowed Perianes to highlight subtleties. Momentum slacked in the first movement as both Perianes and Lehninger lingered over details, but the prayerful Adagio restored the sense of flow with the piano singing long, hymnodic lines. Perianes puckishly teased the transition to the Rondo and then, with a jolt from the left hand, lit out on a romp to the finish. With dynamics tending towards the softer side throughout, this was definitely not Beethoven, the roaring Romantic. However, Perianes blazed through De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance as his encore.

Marcelo Lehninger, Javier Perianes and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Lehninger led Tchaikovsky’s Fifth from memory and with the same precise beat and lean textures. However, where Beethoven primarily engaged his arm and wrist, Tchaikovsky possessed his entire frame as he swooped and swayed, dancing the score, all in the service of a straightforward performance free of any hyperventilating. The dark colors first limned in the brooding clarinet march opening the symphony never remained far from the ear contributing to the tension between hope and despair underpinning the four movements. Desperation never bloated into hysteria, however. The march itself became the symphony’s stalker, skulking through the movements until its triumphant transformation into a major key in the final movement. That movement brought all Lehninger’s strengths to bear as he attacked it immediately after the third, building in ferocity and intensity to the false climax, relaxing briefly and then ratcheting the intensity and the tempo further up to a cathartic release. Principal horn James Sommerville’s soulful solo opening the second movement stood out for its otherworldly quality.

A little of the intensity so effective here would have made the concerto even better. All in all, though, a felicitous beginning to the new year and a new decade.