The Boston Symphony Orchestra's schedule this fall is packed with events linked to James Levine's ambitious and challenging Beethoven/Schoenberg Project, but not this week. If the orchestra's season is like a river with a quickening current, pulling us toward next week's performances of Schoenberg's monumental opera "Moses und Aron," then Thursday night's program was an eddy in which to linger, a peaceful pocket of the Central European Romanticism capable of pleasing even the most conservative tastes. It began with Brahms's massive Second Piano Concerto and ended with Schumann's expansive Second Symphony.
The soloist was Peter Serkin, who can be counted on for thoughtful, erudite pianism but might seem an unusual choice for a big-boned Romantic work like this one. And true to form, this was a thinking man's Brahms, a performance that commanded attention not with Dionysian virtuosity but through a keen alertness to rhythmic and harmonic subtleties in the score. Serkin seemed to have reconsidered the musical logic of each phrase and tempo but this was not an overly dry reading. The third movement was especially rewarding, with the pianist's lapidary lines interspersed with the warm, honeyed tones of Jules Eskin's cello solo.
After intermission, James Levine had the orchestra in fine form for Schumann's Second Symphony. The brass section, with Thomas Rolfs having taken over as principal trumpet, sounded rich and full but never overpowering. The fast-paced scherzo showcased the dexterity of the strings, while at the same time illustrated the virtues of Levine's chosen spatial layout for the orchestra. In particular, he has widely separated the two sections of violins to achieve more clarity than he believes is possible when they are lumped side by side. Certainly the speed and crispness of the scherzo seemed to prove his point.
In Levine's hands, even a Romantic program like this one seems to tilt forward rather than back, showing us how these composers, too, were pushing the envelope. The chronological distances are indeed not so great. As a young man Schoenberg once stood next to Brahms in a concert hall. Thursday night, you could imagine him waiting in the wings.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.