Oramo, Lupu discover new aspects of familiar works

02.04.11
Radu Lupu
The Boston Globe

By David Weininger

The beauty of live performances is that each one carries the potential to disclose hidden aspects of even the most familiar works. Programs that look routine on paper can — in the right hands, with the right approach — open up in entirely new ways, and the listener’s payoff when it happens is significant: a surprisingly new connection to the music.

This happened last night at Symphony Hall, where pianist Radu Lupu and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Sakari Oramo were playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto — his only concerto in a minor key and one in which dramatic intensity is usually at a premium.

Almost from the start, though, Oramo and especially Lupu seemed determined to cut against this grain. Passages that usually sound brusque and powerful were played in a gentle, almost caressing way. Lupu rolled chords, chose unusual notes to emphasize, and seemed to remind listeners that Beethoven had not renounced beauty in this piece.

The first movement’s cadenza was the passage most radically transformed. Where others see only angst, Lupu — with an astonishing array of colors and dynamics — saw bittersweet poignancy, almost channeling late Schubert.

Oramo, a talented Finnish conductor making his BSO debut, kept the textures clear and the rhythms light, even at notably slow tempos.

Oramo accomplished something similar, though less extreme, in the program opener, Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain’’ in Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration. Here there was less surface excitement than usual; in its place were transparency and a wealth of instrumental detail. Accents were short and sharp, and the conductor managed the piece’s stop-and-start momentum well.

After intermission, Oramo led a gripping performance of Prokofiev’s rarely heard Sixth Symphony, written after the war but sharing none of the triumphalism of his more popular Fifth. Where that work commemorated victory, the Sixth, as Prokofiev told a biographer, dwelt on the fact that “each of us has wounds which cannot be healed.’’

Darkness courses through the piece, from the sarcastic brass fanfare with which it opens to the explosions of dissonance that throw an otherwise vigorous finale off course.

Oramo led a performance that was not only beautifully shaped and paced but that also managed to wring out every bit of drama. He was helped by BSO’s playing, which was superlative.