Recent weeks have seen a long parade of guest conductors at the BSO, as the last subscription concerts conducted by James Levine took place on Nov. 9 and 10. During this interim period, the programming has taken a conservative turn. With the exception of John Adams's "El Niño," the new music has been mostly confined to short curtain-raisers. And we've heard symphonies by Schumann and Rachmaninoff, an ingratiating Spanish program, some pre-"Rite" Stravinsky, and Holst's much-loved orchestral suite, "The Planets."
Thursday night's BSO concert extended the winter departure from Levine's brand of challenging programs, as the orchestra played an entire night of Mozart and Haydn. The news of the evening was the return of the eminent British conductor Sir Colin Davis, who was joined by the British pianist Imogen Cooper in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24.
Davis has a long history with the orchestra, as he served as its principal guest conductor from 1972 to 1984. After a hiatus of almost two decades, he has resumed his visits in the last few years, and last night he seemed to be on warm and familiar terms with both orchestra and audience. He opened by leading a genial performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 34, a three-movement work of both grace and economy. From the outset, Davis had the orchestra sounding warm and full, with the split violas in the second movement adding a rich amber core to the heart of the string sound.
Cooper brought both insight and poetry to the darkly probing Concerto No. 24. She opted for a rather forward and present sound, far from the veiled effusions that Radu Lupu brought to Mozart's Concerto No. 20 just last week. But her tone suited the drama of this work and her cadenzas, written by Alfred Brendel, seemed to peer forward toward a more tumultuous Romanticism, but not so far as to sound like an abrupt departure.
Davis's reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 102 was hardy and vigorous, and almost defiantly in the old style, with scarcely a nod to the more recent insights of the early music movement. The orchestra sounded robust, and the conductor did little micromanaging, allowing the players to follow their instincts. The results were light-years from the Haydn style proffered by Roger Norrington and the Handel and Haydn Society on Sunday, but it was rewarding on its own terms.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.