Unknown works by famous composers are usually neglected for good reason. But on Friday morning, Russian pianist Denis Matsuev made a spectacular case for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2, not performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 30 years.With Paavo Järvi on Music Hall’s podium, the orchestra played for an enthusiastic audience of intrepid music lovers who braved the arctic cold. They were rewarded with a performance of warmth and heart, beginning with a United States premiere by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür, and ending with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “Titan.”
Unlike Tchaikovsky’s much-loved Piano Concerto No. 1, a warhorse of the repertory, the Second is a curiosity. In the slow movement, the piece suddenly becomes a triple concerto for piano, violin and cello. Showy and brilliant, it harkens a bygone era of romantic excess, calling for technical fireworks as well as poetry from the pianist.
Matsuev, a 33-year-old native of Irkutsk, Siberia, was up to the task, and more. The first movement unfolded like a fantasy, including a delicate dialogue with flute (Jasmine Choi) and two cadenzas displaying every pianistic cliché.
Matsuev effortlessly tackled great fistfuls of diabolical figures, up and down the keyboard. It was like watching an athlete soar through a marathon, as he reached summit after summit with thrilling bursts of power.
The slow movement, opening with a gorgeous violin solo (Timothy Lees), was the gem of this concerto. The trio, which included cellist Eric Kim, gave it the full romantic treatment, with big vibratos in the strings and an elegant, sonorous touch in the piano. Järvi swept up the strings in the orchestra for a breathtaking collaboration.
The pianist exploded onto the sparkling finale with astonishing virtuosity, his hands a blur, head thrown back.
Witnessing Järvi lead Mahler has been one of the joys of his tenure here. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, like the later symphonies, is filled with military fanfares, hunting horns, nature sounds, funeral marches and other sounds of Mahler’s Austrian upbringing.
The sustained opening, with its offstage trumpets and birdcalls in the winds, had an atmosphere of veiled mystery. Bursting onto the first movement, Järvi propelled tempos and illuminated inner voices, creating a vivid and sunny tapestry. His view was fresh and galvanizing, and he spent little time lingering over its nostalgic tunes.
The inner movements were rich with character. The second movement, a rustic “ländler,” was more earthy than usual. Järvi brought out the touches of irony in the funeral march, leading seamlessly into the klezmer-like “Jewish wedding music.”
Järvi attacked the finale with searing power, bringing out its contrasts in drama and beauty. Its harrowing quality and relentless momentum looked ahead to later Mahler. The orchestra responded with high-powered playing in the brass and brilliant winds and the strings played on the edges of their seats. The eight horns stood for the final surge, in a glorious summation.
Järvi, a champion of fellow-Estonian Tüür, opened with Tüür’s “The Path and the Traces,” the composer’s homage to composer Arvo Pärt. Scored for strings (with the second violins facing the first violins), the engaging piece began with an ethereal drone in the cellos, played against wispy, high glissandos in the violins. Its hallmarks were close harmonies, slow-moving chords and a cool, spare atmosphere.