Beethoven and Bruckner don’t turn up together on many BSO programs. Actually, Bruckner doesn’t turn up on many BSO programs. The orchestra’s music directors — from Koussevitzky and Munch on through Leinsdorf, Steinberg, Ozawa, and Levine — have not largely favored the Austrian composer, though mention should be made of Steinberg’s fine 1970 BSO recording of the Sixth Symphony on RCA. Current music director Andris Nelsons is more of a fan, if his Deutsche Grammophon contract to record all the Bruckner symphonies is any indication. Nelsons has chosen to do that cycle with his “other” orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, while recording all of Shostakovich’s symphonies with the BSO. Still, that means more Bruckner in Symphony Hall; we’ve had Nelsons’s seventh and sixth Symphonies already, and this week’s program brings us the fourth coupled with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
It’s a natural pairing, of course: Bruckner revered Beethoven, and the influence of the earlier composer’s symphonies is unmistakable. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, in C major, was published before No. 2 but written after, probably in 1795, before being revised in 1800. Beethoven’s debt to Haydn and Mozart is obvious, and yet the opening Allegro con brio begins with a tentative march that the full orchestra turns martial. The lyrical second theme is in E-flat rather than the expected G; it’s interrupted by the march, and there’s a further surprise when the piano enters with ideas of its own. Throughout this first movement, the piano keeps insisting that the second theme shouldn’t be subsidiary; the development is a reverie that all but undermines the recapitulation, in the same way that the pianist’s solo cadenza makes the brief orchestral coda seem a flourish.
The Largo offers its own version of a march, in a key that’s yet another surprise, A-flat. This second movement is really a gloss on the first, almost a hijacking; the orchestra is cowed. Point made, the Allegro scherzando Rondo finale is a rollicking affair, the piano playing fox-and-hounds with the orchestra. The first of the two interludes is a cheeky snipe hunt; the second could be a tarantella. The piano whispers the envoi; oboe and French horn deliver the benediction. Once again, the thunderous orchestral conclusion seems an afterthought.
That was especially true Tuesday in Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder’s performance. In his 2011 Sony recording of all five Beethoven piano concertos, with the Vienna Philharmonic, where he conducts from the keyboard, Buchbinder takes the outer movements at a comfortable pace but in the slow movements is consistently faster than, say, Leon Fleisher or Alfred Brendel. At Symphony Hall he was slightly more compact and understated in the outer movements. This wasn’t necessarily an improvement, but the soldier, the poet, and the jester still all got equal time.
Nelsons kept the orchestra on a tight rein at the beginning, initially sweet, then turning majestic rather than militant. The second theme went at the same tempo but brought a change of mood; the strutting soldier at the two-and-half-minute mark could have been one of Robert Schumann’s children at play. When Buchbinder entered, he was crisp and sunny and clearly going his own thoughtful way. In the development he grew tender and wistful, then teasing in his anticipation of the recapitulation. For the cadenza he played one of the three (not the really long one) that the composer wrote out in 1809; here his romantic intensity would surely have pleased early Beethoven champion E.T.A. Hoffmann.
At just over 10 minutes, the abortive love letter of a Largo was nearly two minutes faster than the norm in this movement, yet Buchbinder sounded passionate and never hurried — the weight of his phrasing reminded me of the late Czech pianist Ivan Moravec. The lilting triplets danced before the movement subsided into a reflective duet between the piano and William R. Hudgins’s clarinet. And Buchbinder’s Rondo was no display of runaway virtuosity but an invitation to fun and games, with a bouncing bass that never boomed or banged.
Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, in E-flat, has the distinction of being the only one with a nickname: “Romantic.” That sounds like something a publisher might have thought up, but Bruckner himself was responsible for the name. He even devised a program of sorts, starting with “Mediaeval city — Daybreak — Morning calls sound from the city towers — The gates open — On proud horses the knights burst out into the open. The magic of nature envelops them.” For the first movement’s “Gesangsperiode” he envisioned not just “forest murmurs” but the “song of the great tit.” The second movement he described as “song, prayer, serenade,” the third as a hunt that stops for a midday meal before resuming. Bruckner called the 1878 finale a “Volksfest,” but then he rewrote it. He also confessed that for this last movement, “I’ve completely forgotten what picture I had in mind” — which tells you how seriously you should take the whole idea.
Program aside, few symphonies have been as bedeviled as this one. Bruckner completed the initial version in 1874. By 1878 he had revised the entire work and composed a new scherzo and trio. He revised the finale again in 1880. Further revisions, taking into account the advice of his friends Joseph Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe, were published in 1889. The 1874 original, messier, more complex, harder to play, and in some ways more authentically Bruckner, is very much worth hearing. (Recordings include those by Eliahu Inbal, Roger Norrington, Dennis Russell Davies, Kent Nagano, and Simone Young.) And Benjamin Korstvedt has made the case that Bruckner’s last thoughts and not just those of his friends are indeed represented by the 1889 publication. (Here your recorded choices include Osmo Vänskä and Franz Welser-Möst.)
But the 1878 score with the 1880 finale is the one most contemporary conductors perform, and that includes Nelsons for these concerts. Like every Bruckner symphony, the Fourth is about darkness and light, with “Media vita in morte sumus” (“In the midst of life we are in death”) and “Lux in tenebris” (“Light in darkness”) as your guides. That’s not to say there isn’t a “Romantic” element of the Caspar David Friedrich variety. The opening motif, where the horns drop a fifth and then rise again, is an annunciation; Bruckner could have written “Let there be light” in the score. But ecstasy and entropy are twins. In the development of the opening “Bewegt, nicht zu schnell,” there’s a moment where the big striding theme with the “Bruckner rhythm” (duplet plus triplet) turns from threatening to transporting in a heartbeat. The secular keeps invading the sacred and vice versa.
How Bruckner expected this, and the rest of his work, to be interpreted is a matter for speculation. The young Otto Klemperer ripped through his 1951 Vienna Symphony recording of the Fourth in under 52 minutes; by the time he made his 1963 Philharmonia studio recording for EMI, he was up to 61. The norm today, pioneered by Herbert von Karajan in 1970, approaches 70 minutes; in 1993 Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic stretched that out to 86.
What we mostly have from contemporary Bruckner performances is what’s been called “modern monumental”: slow, reverent, uniform in tempo, the mystic without the mundane. But the older approaches weren’t always better. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1951 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic underlines tempo contrasts, creating conventional excitement and sentiment where Bruckner asks for glints and shadows. Hans Knappertsbusch’s 1964 live performance with the same orchestra, on the other hand, swaps changes in tempo for changes in mood, substituting light and dark for fast and slow.
The BSO first played this symphony, under Wilhelm Gericke, in 1899. We don’t know what the performance was like; we do know that audiences were hardier back then, since the bill for that concert was filled out by Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 — a good two hours of music. The printed program gave the performance order as overture, concerto, and symphony, but an insert announced that the symphony would in fact be played first, followed by the concerto and finally the overture. Was the idea to discourage patrons from leaving after the Beethoven and the Brahms? On Tuesday, one couple near me left at intermission, and at least two more walked out in the middle of the Bruckner.
Which was a shame, because Nelsons gave a superb interpretation. Like last season’s Bruckner Sixth, this Fourth was measured: the approximate movement timings were 19, 17, 11, and 21. But whereas Nelsons’s Sixth tended toward the marmoreal, his Fourth crested and subsided, blazed and flickered. Where Bruckner meant time to stop, it stopped; where he meant it to run, it ran. There was a hint of a horn wobble on that opening call, but throughout the symphony, in which they play a major part, the horns were heroic, burnished and never brazen. The brass in general had sounded brash at the opening night of that Sixth; here, though never less than forthright, they were refreshingly humble. That set the tone of the performance, as did the menacing air of the “Bruckner rhythm” theme. The “great tit” theme can seem chirpy and thin; Nelsons gave it body. The big chorale midway through the first movement died away almost before it was over, an apt reminder of the evanescence of glory.
Bruckner marked the second movement “Andante quasi allegretto”; most conductors turn it into an Adagio. It’s another sad march; like the Largo of the Beethoven piano concerto, it could be about the death of love. Nelsons was somber but not sluggish, with both sunlight and shade, and ample air around the different sections. The climax here was big and anguished, and it expired with an equally big sigh.
The Scherzo, with its whooping horns, really does conjure a hunt. Nelsons’s was a jolly affair, not overdriven, and with, in the “Etwas ruhiger” section, a delicate interplay between principal horn James Sommerville and principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs. The ländler Trio, marked “Nicht zu schnell” but also “Keinesfalls schleppend,” was on the sleepy side. The Finale, yet another march, went at a firm, dignified clip; Nelsons even managed to make the birdsong in this last movement not sound too much like the similar birdsong in the first. The third subject was animated, almost hectic; when the birdsong theme returned, it had a Middle Eastern flavor. (There’s more than one moment in Bruckner’s symphonies that sounds like background music for Cecil B. DeMille narrating The Ten Commandments.) Here the chorale could have had more intensity, but overall the darkness persisted, and the conclusion, again big and slow, was no easy victory but a leap of faith. Let’s hope Nelsons’s recording with the Leipzig Gewandhaus reaches the same level.
Andris Nelsons and the BSO will repeat this program Friday November 24 at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday November 25 at 8 p.m.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.