Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili impresses in LisztFrom the sound of the orchestra Friday night, it was as if Paavo Järvi had never left.
Järvi, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 2001-11, returned to Music Hall with an intriguing program and his trademark way of injecting intensity into every note.
The Estonian-born conductor, now CSO music director laureate, has long championed Nordic composers. He opened with the orchestra's first-ever performance of Danish composer Carl Nielsen's "Aladdin" Suite, and closed with an early work by the Russian master Shostakovich, his Symphony No. 1.
For the centerpiece, pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, a native of Tbilisi, Georgia, made her debut in Liszt's showy Concerto No. 2 in A Major.
Järvi conducts a high-profile career as music director of the Orchestre de Paris, which included opening in January the new, $505 million Philharmonie de Paris, whose acoustics he praised as excellent. Next season, he will become chief conductor of the NHK Symphony in Japan, and he also is artistic director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie in Bremen, Germany.
The bold, energized sound Järvi drew from the orchestra was eye-opening from the first note of Nielsen's "Aladdin" Suite. The 24-minute suite of 1918 is from incidental music to a play. Its seven movements include an Oriental Festive March and Hindu, Chinese and African dances.
Orchestrated for large, colorful orchestra, the piece unfolded almost cinematically. The winds phrased with character and their sound disappeared into thin air at the end of "Aladdin's Dream and Dance of the Morning Mist." The players were precise and refined in the Hindu Dance, a palette of delicate orchestral colors.
The most fascinating was "The Marketplace in Ispahan," in which four groups of musicians each played their own exotic music, simultaneously. It became a cacophony reminiscent of Charles Ives, before each dropped out, one by one. Somehow under Järvi, it made sense.
Shostakovich's First Symphony, which came after intermission, was extremely well-played, although disjointed and a little quirky. The composer wrote it at age 19 for his graduation piece. It predates his well-known symphonies written during the Stalin Era, and some of its themes – especially in the slow movement – anticipate the greatness that was to come.
Frenzied moments turned on a dime into themes of atmospheric beauty, seemingly with little rhyme or reason. Järvi later said he believes its abrupt changes can be attributed to Shostakovich's work at the time – as a piano player for silent movies.
The piano, which was embedded in the orchestra in front of the podium, played an important role in this performance. Michael Chertock managed to play all of the notes of the phenomenal piano part, despite the frantic tempo that Järvi set in the second movement. The scherzo included witty contributions from bassoonist William Winstead.
The slow movement, the heart of the work, was extraordinary. Järvi's gift for communicating mood, whether filled with angst or beauty, worked to great effect, and the orchestra played it magnificently. The many solo contributions included a deeply felt oboe theme (Dwight Parry), a romantic cello solo (Ilya Finkelshteyn), a sweet melody for violin (Timothy Lees) and a theme for muted trumpet (Matthew Ernst).
The finale, too, contrasted the drama of pounding timpani against intimate sonorities. The conductor led with momentum and bite to an exhilarating finish.
In softer passages, though, her tone seemed pale and the orchestra sometimes covered her sound. Even so, the slow movement provided the evening's most sublime collaboration, when the pianist accompanied Finkelshteyn's solo cello. It was as intimate as chamber music, and she played with a light, expressive touch.
In the finale, Buniatishvili balanced powerhouse playing against moments of delicate sound. The crowd-pleasing conclusion, featuring glissandos up and down the keyboard, had the crowd on their feet.