A bubbly, enthusiastic crowd gathered at Symphony Hall on Thursday, January 16 to hear Christoph Eschenbach play and conduct Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414. The work had not been heard in here since 1996, and it was worth the wait. Eschenbach conducted from the piano, beginning the evening with a chamber orchestra drawn from the BSO’s best players. Wearing a simple black, high-collared suit, he played with his back to the audience, giving us a chance to see the full keyboard.
The distinguished music director of both the National Symphony and the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach, arranged the small group symmetrically around the piano, with the first violins (8), cellos (4), and a pair of double-basses on his left, and the second violins (8) and violas (6) on his right. Over the last three months, he has been alternating national appearances as an orchestral conductor with intimate lieder recitals, including several collaborations with baritone Matthias Goerne of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (this same weekend in Chicago and again next week at the Kennedy Center).
He took a sensitive and playful approach to Mozart’s 12th piano concerto, preferring a light touch and often leading the orchestra solely with his left hand. He alternated between quick patterns of four and lyrical, sweeping duple gestures, even within the first theme. His consistent, clean direction and beautiful incorporation of rubato (even in difficult passage work) lent an air of grace and restraint to the work, which was one of the first Viennese concertos Mozart penned.
In his 26th year, Mozart wrote as much for publication as for personal performance, and we have no record of the composer presenting his 12th concerto in public. More than a third of bars in the outer movements are for unaccompanied keyboard, and Eschenbach especially shone in those moments when he had the stage to himself, so to speak. His expansive approach to the first solo section of the second movement recalled Beethoven’s later chorales, slightly hesitating, with the right hand slightly more rubato than the left. After each of these solo passages, the BSO responded by playing with much more flexibility and subtlety.
Each of K. 414’s three movements includes several cadenza-like passages, and Mozart provided two full sets of cadenzas for the work. Although dominated by the strings, the concerto includes parts for four winds (two oboes and two horns) to supply color and reinforce the main orchestra. It was first published in Paris by Seiber together with K. 413 and 415; a letter to the publisher specifies that it “can be performed with full orchestra, or with oboes and horns, or merely a quattro [i.e. with a string quartet].”
The second half of the concert featured Anton Bruckner’s unfinished Symphony No. 9 and required more than twice as many players, including four Wagner tubas. Eschenbach is a respected interpreter and advocate of Bruckner, and he had just conducted the same edition of the composer’s 9th in Chicago one month ago.
In both cities, he began Bruckner’s last great score by focusing on the spiritual qualities of the work, crafting an organ-like sonority that both emphasized contemplation and evoked the composer’s past as a longtime church musician. The opening D was sustained for almost a minute, and you could imagine Bruckner humming the opening of Beethoven’s 9th before embarking on his own work. Eschenbach conducted without a score, highlighting climatic moments through his sensitive preparations of dissonances and the many tricky transitions.
His approach to the third movement was much more dynamic than in Chicago, with huge unison swoops and slides from the violins and much better intonation from the woodwinds. Eschenbach emphasized Bruckner’s famous climatic dissonance, cut by some editors, and made way for the delicate woodwind trios that demonstrate so clearly the spiritual fervor and warmth typical of Bruckner’s sacred music.
The high point of the concert, however, was the heroic second-movement Scherzo, sounding more like Solti or Mehta was at the helm. The brass contributed spectacular organ-like chorales, and the audience thrilled to extreme contrasts of dynamics and texture. Eschenbach found a way to emphasize the two eighth-note pickups to the driving unison theme, obscuring the downbeats, and creating a complex and fascinating web of sound. He challenged us to hear Bruckner experimenting with a new approach to melody, more fragmented and repetitive than typical romantic writing, more like a minimalist film score than Hanslick and his Viennese cronies were ready for in the 1880s. Bruckner usually demands that chromatic motives be repeated four, eight, even twelve times in rising sequences; the BSO played with such intensity that, if they hadn’t been stopped, they would have ascended with him all the way into the 20th century.