During last Saturday night’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in Jordan Hall, Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic brought together the cosmic scale of the symphony with a refreshing humility in regard to tempo, performing a work that lasts over eighty minutes, with nothing resembling a respite for the strings. Even principal percussionist Hans Morrison, patiently waiting for his two loud cymbal crashes in the third movement, seemed transfixed by the symphony’s own power as he sat in far left corner of the stage.
Zander set the figurative stage for the symphony during his pre-concert lecture that was its own tour-de-force. The lecture/performance drew a motley crowd into Jordan Hall — devotees of the work ( a passionate group), students, regular subscribers, and, much to this reviewer’s delight, children. For the better part of an hour, Zander preached the Bruckner Gospel — and you wanted to listen. Drawing connections between Beethovenian themes and Mahlerian gestures, Maestro Zander broke down the monumental work into digestible parts, without ever resorting to pedantry or musicological minutiae. “Mahler,” Zander said, “has told us how to get here… Bruckner tells us how to deal with it.” He didn’t just talk about the work, however. He defined where he fit in the greater picture of the performance: “My job is to control the tempi” — a rather humble statement to describe a task that, with this symphony, is a daunting proposition.
And control it he did. In the moments where the tempo was most likely to run away in response to the exuberance of the piece, Zander’s gestures were close to the body, exacting, and highly focused, saving the sweeping and emotive gestures for melodic expression. In the first movement, the almost imperceptible tremolo underscoring in the strings was magical; I had to focus my eyes on the players’ hands to see that they were indeed moving. The orchestra seamlessly navigated in and out of the fortissimos and subito pianos, held tightly, but not restrictively, by Zander’s reins.
The Scherzo opened with the energy of a finale, and the rhythmic articulation lent something to the movement I can only hesitantly describe as “funk” in the best sense of the word. This was rhythm one feels in the bones and in the gut, viscerally connecting to the music. The duet between horn and harp offered a beautiful chamber music moment in amongst the tapestry of Mahlerian and Wagnerian textures. The winds, unfortunately, were often overshadowed by the brass and the strings, but this is more a consequence of Bruckner’s scoring than any fault of the players. In this symphony the winds seem almost an afterthought, offering timbral commentary on the wash of sound in the strings. The sound of the low strings, in particular, had a haunting and gorgeous hollowed-out quality to it, which seemed to reach across the orchestra to dance with the Wagner tubas and the horns.
Watching the cellos in the Adagio was like watching a beautifully choreographed ballet, but wherein each step created a perfectly synchronized melodic phrase. Zander approached the movement with solemnity, as the composer asked, but kept up the tempo, fulfilling the thematic destiny of the movement, which can easily be sullied by any sense of drag in the beat. It is the third movement upon which the success of the symphony rests, making one forget about the lack of intermission, and worrying little about what comes afterward.
Not that there was much question, but the finale proved that this orchestra knows the power of a theme, particularly in the case of Bruckner’s writing, jam-packed as it is with compositional legacy. If there was any moment where I heard fatigue, it was right toward the end of the finale where the violins seemed to sacrifice just a tad of their rhythmic vigor. This minor issue was easily supplanted, however, by the orchestra’s ability to play Bruckner’s crescendi as they were intended; they refuse to take you where you want to go when you want to go there, and instead ask you to hang on for the ride. In his pre-concert lecture, Zander referred to William Carragan, contributing editor for the Anton Bruckner Collected Edition, whose notes call attention to Bruckner’s tempo marking for first theme of the finale: 69 beats per minute. The music did indeed gallop, sinewy and muscular, never losing energy but instead proudly bringing a Herculean performance to a close.
And now I must make a full confession — this is a not a piece I have adored in the past or that I have gone out of my way to hear. Perhaps it is my inability to listen to the final movement without hearing Wotan sing “Loge, hör!” and glimmers of the Siegfried motive. (Kindly address all hate mail to me personally, not the editor.) But for all its ever-so-slightly derivative moments, Zander and the Boston Philharmonic peeled back layers that I have hitherto ignored and moved me out of that sense of reluctant and forced appreciation toward a more genuine understanding. Should the Boston Philharmonic perform more works toward which I feel cynically inclined, I will eagerly go for the opportunity to be converted by compelling artistry and passionate devotion to music-making.