The BSO’s thematic idea of a Valentine’s Day program featured Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, “Romantic.” Christoph von Dohnányi brought out wonderful sounds from the BSO; he began by leading Radu Lupu in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A.
The revered Romanian pianist Radu Lupu has continued touring and performing, but for the last many years, has not issued new recordings. So his arrival in town is an event heralded to concert-goers. Unlike his Carnegie Hall appearances last month which showcased 19th-century French music that he has not recorded, we heard him return to a familiar work: Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A, K.488 (which he performed in his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in December 1977). This 1786 composition atypically includes an Adagio in a minor key, as well as the composer’s own cadenza for the opening Allegro (which Mr. Lupu performed). We were treated to a muted, restrained side of Mozart rather than the oft-heard manic ebullience. Mr. Lupu graced this work with a caressing tenderness, a sense of intimacy, and a calmness which never impeded the forward motion of the phrases or the work as a whole. This performance revealed a work of great subtlety and profundity. The Adagio was a study in heartbreak. The Allegro assai was marked by a melancholia that colored the ascending phrase trying for lightness and happiness, granting a great emotional power to this music—all the more so for the reserve expressed in this reading. Throughout, the piano playing was lean, focused, and, like a magnet, drew listeners into its soundworld. Lupu interacted visually with the orchestra (noticeably more than many other soloists), even at one point conducting with his left hand; Dohnányi did an admirable job leading the ensemble to match Mr. Lupu’s sound, phrasing, and pace. At spots I wished for a leaner sound from the orchestra to match the piano, as, visibly, did Dohnányi; hopefully this will be resolved in future performances.
Those who came only to hear Lupu left at intermission. I was not surprised but I am deeply disappointed. Beforehand I heard voices resignedly accepting that one had to hear a Bruckner symphony once a decade. This degree of provincialism is a shame for all of Boston and a blight in our midst which must be extirpated if we wish to be more than snobbish posers. Worse, I fear this limited outlook plagues the Trustees and Overseers of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who still have not announced a new music director as we begin to face a third season of visiting conductors and an increasingly rudderless orchestra of fine musicians drifting slowly, inexorably apart.
Those who stayed were treated to some of the finest moments of the BSO playing that I have heard in recent years, a salutary reminder of what this orchestra once was and could be again. Conducting a stage-full of musicians from memory, Dohnányi took to the stage for Anton Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E-flat, “Romantic” (the “second state” of 1878 – 1880, here performed in the 1936 Robert Haas edition). Bruckner was an insecure man, ill-suited to the neurotic world of late 19th-century Vienna; this led to the multiple revisions and differing versions of this symphony, and also a textual description of this symphony’s music. That Gothic-tinged narrative bears remarkably little relation to the music, so is best left to one side. More germane to what one hears in this symphony is Bruckner’s own background as an organist, and his manifest love for the sound of that instrument. A mighty work, clocking in at some 75 minutes, this symphony features long phrases and requires focused concentration and careful pacing on the part of the musicians—as well as some fabulously talented instrumentalists who have solos throughout the work. From the shimmer of tremolo strings which began this performance ex nihilo, there was purpose, excitement, and shape. In the third measure a horn solo begins: James Sommerville, principal, brought to this line a nobility and plaintiveness which perfectly captured the twin poles of this composition. As the sound swelled, the celli and bassi, along with the low brass, perfectly captured the presence and magnitude of an organ with their harmonic pedal points. As the lengthy development came to an end, the violas effected a gorgeous entrance: from nothing, something, with overtones of salvation. Only around measure 501 did I hear any hint of the gallant knight-errant from Bruckner’s textual narrative of this symphony; the pianissimo arpeggios in the celli recalled the opening of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene – “A gentle Knight was pricking on the plain.” For all that brief glimmer of martial travel, this remained music of vast spaces and clear, resounding skies carrying sounds far and wide. Throughout this opening Bewegt, nicht zu schnell movement, there was excellent playing from the strings and winds; much of the brass playing was admirable, although a few entrances were not as clear as one would wish and these will hopefully improve in future performances. A smattering of applause greeted the end of this movement, and well-deserved it was too.
The Andante quasi Allegretto opens in a more sombre and profound vein as Bruckner mines the pathos of the relative key of c minor. The heartbreak in this movement can match that of the Mozart Adagio from the first half of the program; sadly that effect, for me, was interrupted by issues with tempo and dynamics. Dohnányi signaled and gestured, but the orchestra flagged in their concentration and attention. The resulting performance was not as powerful or moving as it might have been. The Scherzo: Bewegt and Trio: Nicht zu schnell; Keinesfalls schleppend began, as the first movement, from silence with a halo of string tremolo before the noble and full-voiced brass entrance, reminders of this work’s other emotional pole. The Trio was here performed at a slower tempo than I have heard previously, rendering this work as charmingly bucolic rather than a Ländler-like country dance. By the end of the Trio some of the magic of the first movement had returned. The Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell opened with an insistent repetition of quarter notes on the dominant underneath a plangent call in the brass, giving the music a troubling, ruminative character. Themes from earlier in the symphony returned, clearly heard, to unite these musical meditations into one transformative whole. The awkward transition announced late in the development section by the second violins at measure 358 sounded tentative; it is a shockingly innovative turn in the music and I hope this hesitancy disappears in future performances (even as I fully acknowledge how difficult a transition this is to capture in any performance). Those less familiar with this work might not have been as distracted by it as was I. Fortunately the orchestral forces rallied and brought this symphony to a firmer, more resounding and satisfying conclusion.
Christoph von Dohnányi drew out the motifs in this symphony and succeeded in balancing disparate voices. He also brought out the humor in Bruckner, something not always heard in this work. I appreciated Dohnányi’s foregrounding the comedic timing in Bruckner, the teasing aspects of this music, and applaud these choices and decisions. The result is a more human, more captivating understanding of Bruckner’s behemoth composition. Dohnányi was visibly passionate about all of the music; one could only wish all the musicians had been as keen and as focused as was he.