For the antepenultimate program of its 2015-2016 season, the Boston Symphony offers two pieces as unlike as can be from two Austrian composers: Mozart’s most successful concerto for stringed instruments, the elegant and poignant Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, and the grandiose, problematic, and rather galumphing Symphony No. 3 in D Minor by Anton Bruckner. Andris Nelsons conducted with his usual flair on Thursday night.
As one might expect from the many years they’ve played together, the soloists for the Mozart, principal violin Malcolm Lowe and principal viola Steven Ansell, matched one another excellently from that magical moment of their first solo entry in the opening movement, when they seem to arrive from the Empyrean in sustained octave E-flats high above the orchestra, to the very end. Since the solo parts consist generally of echoes and duets back and forth, this stylistic matching plays a significant role in a successful performance. The opening Allegro movement, the most energetic part of the work, offered touches of orchestral drama offset by delicate pizzicatos and charm. The closing Presto spotlights the soloists individually, echoing one another with cheerful wit. In the central movement, which ravishes the ear with grace and an aching poignancy, Lowe and Ansell excelled.
Nelsons chose the final 1889 version of Bruckner’s Third Symphony. The work caused Bruckner considerable heartache, especially at its first performance, where, owing to the unexpected death of the intended conductor, Bruckner himself was forced to lead the performance, and to be subject to the humiliation of receiving minimal applause from a depleted audience (though one of those who remained to cheer was the young Gustav Mahler) while even the orchestra had left the stage. A second version with cuts and revisions came soon after. But later in life Bruckner was persuaded to revise it more substantially (with some help from his “friends”), and it was this final version that the Boston Symphony played.
One of the reasons that the Symphony caused Bruckner so much difficulty was that he chose to dedicate it to Richard Wagner, which put Bruckner in the wrong political camp as far as Viennese musical critics were concerned. Still, despite momentary Wagnerian touches, the piece reflects Bruckner’s musical world, which was shaped in the organ loft and which make for problems of musical continuity, at least to my ears.
Bruckner tended to compose in musical blocks, passages that make their appearance then are suddenly replaced by quite different passages in striking contrast. This frequent movement from one kind of idea to a vastly different one surely reflects the art of the organist, suggesting as it does a musician at a large instrument containing three or more manuals, playing a phrase on one manual with a flute stop, for example, then you shifting to another manual set for the trumpet stop, followed by yet another phrase with the full organ. Often—rather disconcertingly—the phrase ends in a sudden silence, as if the player is taking a moment to reset the stops before continuing.
Of course the symphony is not an organ composition, yet it is filled with these stops and starts, suddenly changing color and theme and mood, that one must try to take it in as a complex musical gesture.
Andris Nelsons shaped the BSO players with rich color and expressiveness for each kind of phrase, with a ringing sound for the brasses, expressive solos in the woodwinds, and tremolos either delicate or dramatic in the strings. At full cry the sound of the orchestra is glorious. The contrasting lighter moments for woodwinds contrasted beautifully. The pauses called for by the composer during the many breaks of phrasing seem to have been well calculated by the conductor, though they nonetheless felt like a breaking up of the musical flow. This strikes me as Bruckner’s issue rather than that of the performers. The final cadence, no matter how many times I hear it, always seems to come just too abruptly.
In this regard the work is perhaps Bruckner’s most problematic. The Fourth through Eighth symphonies and the torso of the Ninth seem to possess more satisfying flow. Still, it is good to return to the challenging pieces now and then, because each return offers another chance to get inside Bruckner’s head and come to grips with his language and his art. The BSO performance offered a beautifully played opportunity to do just that.