By Aaron Keebaugh
In the hands of some, Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto can be tame and traditional. As conducted by Karina Canellakis, and performed by the BSO and violinist Nicola Benedetti, the piece came off as bold, colorful, and urgent.
Nicola Benedetti always finds depth where others see mere spectacle.
At 16, she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year by playing Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a score that processes more flair than substance. But her beaming tone, nuanced phrasing, and command of the technical fireworks — also heard on her 2007 recording of the concerto — make clear that ecstasy can be an end in itself.
Benedetti brought that Dionysian zest to Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto in her belated debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night. Conducted by Karina Canellakis, this score, which in the hands of some can be tame and traditional, came off as bold, colorful, and urgent.
The composer’s last major work, the concerto leans into the romantic idiom without resorting to undue schmaltz or sentimentality. The violinist stands as a stalwart presence here, rising above the din like a calming voice amid the clamor. There’s dynamism to be sure, yet this music sweeps along with grace and gentle vigor. It is a comparatively understated canvas from a composer with a penchant for rhapsodic exuberance.
From the onset, Benedetti walked the wire between earnestness and intensity. Her dusky tone brought palpable weight to the opening phrase, and she flaunted the first movement’s wild diversions, offside rants, and dexterous flourishes, elements she propelled to rapturous heights in the ensuing cadenza.
The finale, with its folk tunes and marches, coursed with rustic swagger. But Benedetti also reveled in opportunities to establish intimacy, her warm melody a foil for the passing clarinet and bassoon solos. Canellakis wove a plush and sensitive accompaniment to match.
Making her Symphony Hall debut with this weekend’s concerts, Canellakis commands the orchestral forces with technicolor polish. Her stick technique is brisk and to the point, resulting in incisive rhythms and, when called for, the arrival of raw power.
Her tour through Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, which came after intermission, emphasized grit as much as verve.
The Polish composer’s most familiar score, the Concerto for Orchestra erupts with seismic contrasts. Sections don’t merge so much as collide and fade without supplying resolution.
Yet Canellakis cultivated a direction and momentum from out of the simplest flourishes. She layered each utterance of the opening theme into a tower of harmony that bit the ear with its aptly rough sonority, breaking tension momentarily in the soft cadences at movement’s end.
The second movement was sprightly; the orchestra reveled in its impish dissonance, like a musical portmanteau of Bartók and Tchaikovsky. The concluding Passacaglia was a study in the process of gradual accumulation, the music reaching a satisfying payoff in the fiery Toccata and glowing chorale.
Dvořák’s Wood Dove, which opened the concert, compellingly seesawed between funereal grandeur and terpsichorean fervor.
Not performed by the BSO since 1905, this tone poem conveys the turmoil of a woman who poisons her husband, feigns grief, and takes a lover soon after the murder. But she ends up overcome with guilt.
Canellakis probed the work’s psychological darkness via an ideal balance of subtlety and flair. She is the real deal; judging by this program, she knows how to serve up clever surprises. Let’s have her back for more. And soon.
Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.