“This week in Symphony Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra plays an ‘all-Austrian’ program!” The BSO might have thought to promote the current program thus, since both composers on the bill indubitably hailed from Austria. Perhaps it’s because Mozart and Bruckner lived in different centuries, and we’re accustomed to thinking of the one as classical and the other as mystic. But Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.453 (No. 17) and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 aren’t so different. Bruckner called his symphony the Romantic, and the Mozart concerto is romantic in its own way. Both works premiered in Vienna. Both even make reference to birdsong.
Only an experienced guest conductor could underline those similarities [See BMInt interview with the conductor HERE], and the BSO has that in 94-year-old Blomstedt, who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, but whose parents took him back to their native Sweden when he was just two. I don’t know whether he’s the oldest musician ever to grace Symphony Hall — Menahem Pressler was “only” 92 when he played Mozart’s K.595 back in 2016. But Blomstedt certainly has the expertise for the Bruckner Fourth; he’s made three recordings of it, the earliest going back to 1981. His concerto soloist, German pianist Martin Helmchen, was last here in 2019, when he played Mozart’s K.482 with the BSO and John Storgårds. The concerto was good enough, but the symphony made the evening.
Few of Mozart’s piano concertos have acquired nicknames. K.537 became the Coronation after he performed it at the 1790 coronation of Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor. K.467 famously became the Elvira Madigan after Swedish director Bo Widerberg featured the Andante in his 1967 film. Mozart wasn’t responsible for either of those names, but he would have had every reason to call K.453 the Starling, since his own pet starling, he tells us, was able to sing the opening theme of the Allegretto finale. Some accounts even have it that the starling composed the tune.
What we know for sure is that Mozart noted the date of the concerto’s completion on the score: April 12, 1784. His student Barbara Ployer performed the work in concert on June 13, but it’s possible Mozart himself played it on an April 29 concert program. In any event, on May 27, Mozart paid 34 kreuzer for a pet starling. That same day, in his pocket notebook, he jotted down the opening phrase of the concerto’s finale and then the version the starling whistled. The starling differed by adding a fermata at the end of the first full bar and, in a daring harmonic invention, turning the two G’s of this G-major phrase into G sharps.
The simplest explanation for the starling’s mimicry is that Mozart had visited the pet shop and whistled the phrase to the starling some time before bringing the bird home. Or perhaps the starling was simply a quick study and picked up the tune at once upon arriving at Mozart’s flat in the Graben. On the other hand, if Mozart really did premiere the concerto at the end of April, the starling would have had a full month to learn the tune from musically inclined pet-shop customers, which in 1780s Vienna were doubtless legion.
But regardless of when Mozart first met the bird that would be his friend for three years, K.453 sounds remarkably like a conversation between composer and feathered companion. It opens with the same march rhythm that Mozart used in K.451, K.456, and K.459, only here it’s a toy-soldier kind of march. And that playful spirit infuses the Allegro first movement, where Mozart, after the orchestra has set out the first two subjects, sneaks in a third idea during the piano’s share of the exposition. The starling nods in accord, and the extra theme is accorded its place in the recapitulation.
The first violins open the Andante with a poignant five-bar melody that stops on a fermata, as if they were too heartsore to continue. That melody and its fermata recur throughout the movement; each time pianist and orchestra explore in a different harmonic direction. The Allegretto finale is a set of five variations on the “starling” theme (which is itself a variation on the concerto’s opening theme), music that anticipates the Papageno sections of Die Zauberflöte. When piano and orchestra run out of ideas, they break into a Presto coda that seems to have no connection with anything until, sheepishly, they remember they have a theme to return to.
I was curious as to whether Blomstedt would pare down the string section for the Mozart. He did: there were just 33. He also seated the first and second violins antiphonally, the normal arrangement in Mozart’s time. He had no podium and no baton; a score lay open on his music stand, but I didn’t observe him turning any pages.
Helmchen plays in the general style of his mentor Alfred Brendel. I didn’t connect well with his K.482 in 2019, and I didn’t have much better luck appreciating his artistry on Thursday. His technique is superb, and I couldn’t fault the tempos; he and Blomstedt resisted the temptation to turn the Andante into an Adagio. But the jaunty, extroverted first movement was straightforward to a fault. Helmchen’s tone is pearly rather than sparkling, he can be very staccato, there isn’t much elasticity in his phrasing, and I didn’t detect many moments of wit or tenderness. Everything just motored along in cascades of notes. He did make a nice transition from the development into the recapitulation, and the coda, after an explosion of virtuosity, paused for thought.
The Andante went better. Blomstedt drew an anguished warmth from the orchestra, and the initial solo interplay of oboe (John Ferrillo), flute (Elizabeth Klein), and bassoon (Richard Svoboda) put me in mind of the “Scène au champs” from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. And Helmchen found a degree of emotional weight that I hadn’t heard in the Allegro — still cool, but somehow ardent as well. The Allegretto finale was exuberant but not always playful; the horns did make the most of their martial coda moment when Mozart and his starling imagine they’re marching off to war. Blomstedt and Helmchen bookended the performance by bumping elbows.
The encore, the luscious Adagio from Mozart’s K.332 Piano Sonata, had a similar profile, intellectual and hard-edged. Helmchen’s right hand provided subtle shaping even as his left seemed to bounce the accompaniment along.
Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony is arguably his most popular. Its 1881 Vienna premiere marked a turning point in his career, and in the mid-20th century, the fourth was was his most likely symphony to fit on a single LP with no movements interrupted by flipping sides. It’s also the only Bruckner symphony with a nickname; Romantic sounds like a publisher’s idea but was actually the composer’s. He even devised a program, 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.” (Perhaps the Vienna of his day was short of starlings.) The second movement he described as “song, prayer, serenade,” the third as a hunt that stops for a midday meal before resuming. Bruckner titled the 1878 version of the 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.”
You can hear some of that in a symphony that’s dominated by the horn section. The opening solo call, dropping a fifth and then rising again, announces dawn; the knights bursting forth gallop to, of course, the Bruckner rhythm — duplet plus triplet — of the first theme. The second theme actually does suggest one of the many calls of the European great tit, a bird that’s cousin to the American chickadee. The C-minor Andante, quasi Allegretto is a somber procession whose first theme riffs on that opening horn call. Bruckner additionally described the movement as a “rustic love-scene” in which “a peasant boy woos his sweetheart, but she scorns him”; in the context of the composer’s “Romantic” scenario, it could be that one of the knights has met with a check from his lady. Death of love is certainly conveyed by the steady forward movement; the second theme, accompanied by pizzicato strings, seems to reflect on what’s been lost.
Bruckner is said to have called the Scherzo a “rabbit hunt,” so perhaps the horns that start it off are the composer’s little joke, a premonition of the dead-end hunt that concludes Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto. The hunt does lose the scent in the middle section, and the Ländler Trio is definitely a lunch break. What Bruckner had in mind as he was composing the Finale was elements from the previous movements. In the first subject group, the Bruckner rhythm and the horn call of the opening movement return, and the horns reprise their Scherzo call. A sad march echoing the one in the slow movement follows, and then a chirpy theme that’s a variant on the first-movement bird call. By the time the orchestra reaches the serene coda, everything has fallen into place.
As is often the case with Bruckner, there’s more than one version of the symphony. He made his first attempt in 1874; it’s messier, harder to play, more complex, and more adventurous than what was to come. 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; Bruckner scholar Benjamin Korstvedt has made the case that this final version represents the composer’s last thoughts and not just those of his friends.
There are numerous recordings of both the 1874 and the 1889 editions. But most conductors, including Blomstedt and Andris Nelsons when he did the Fourth with the BSO here in 2017, choose to play the “middle” version, some form of what the symphony sounded like at its 1881 premiere. Robert Haas and Leopold Novak published editions of this version in the previous century; for these concerts, Blomstedt is using the Korstvedt edition that came out in 2019 and is, in fact, dedicated to him.
Tempo is almost as much of an issue in Bruckner as editions. Karl Böhm’s with the Sächsische Staatskapelle in 1936 runs a moderate 63 minutes. Otto Klemperer ripped through his 1951 Vienna Symphony recording in 51:30. Since then the norm has risen from about an hour (Klemperer with the Philharmonia in 1963, Erich Leinsdorf with the BSO in 1966) to more like 70 minutes (Böhm with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1973, Nelsons with the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 2017); Sergiu Celibidache’s 1993 Munich Philharmonic recording is, no surprise, reaches an outer limit of 86. The symphony has enormous tensile strength; both the fast Klemperer and the slow Celibidache performances work, which is saying something when you consider that Klemperer takes 16:32 for the Finale as against Celibidache’s 30:39.
Blomstedt’s three recordings of the Fourth — with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 1981, the San Francisco Symphony in 1994, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 2012 — are of a piece with the interpretation he gave Thursday. Conducting from the podium this time, he had a score on his music stand, but he didn’t even bother to turn the cover. Almost motionless, and still with no baton, he made graceful arcs with his arms and elicited playing of enormous dynamic range and detail in texture, balance, and phrasing. I hadn’t seen a conductor do so much with so little movement since Paavo Berglund guested here in 2004 in the Sibelius Violin Concerto and the Shostakovich Eighth.
This was a cosmic Bruckner Fourth that benefited no little from James Sommerville’s many exposed horn solos. The opening one was primordial, as if emerging from the mists to announce the first ever dawn. Blomstedt’s basic tempo here and in the rest of the symphony was slow but steady and inexorably moving forward; each movement seemed like a single chapter with ample paragraphing. The phrasing was expansive, particularly in the Bruckner rhythms; Blomstedt never shortchanged the rests, something Bruckner conductors have a tendency to do. In the first movement he underscored the second violins’ initial counterpoint to the chirpy second theme, and then his antiphonal seating of first and second violins allowed their back-and-forth to register properly. That second theme could have been more whimsical, and the big climax in the development more magisterial, but then this would have been a reading more in line with the peaks and valleys of a Hans Knappertsbusch or an Eugen Jochum. Blomstedt instead chose to keep his head above the clouds.
It’s not clear what tempo Bruckner wanted for the second movement. The Andante, quasi Allegretto marking in the 1881 version indicates the music should move right along. The 1889 version reads simply Andante and has a metronome mark of 66 that suggests a slow Adagio. Did Bruckner endorse the 1889 marking after hearing the symphony and deciding he preferred a slower tempo? Or was that the opinion of his friends? On Thursday Blomstedt, as he has in the past, observed the spirit of the Allegro, quasi Andante marking in a reading that was nobly resigned and unsentimental. The movement featured sharp-edged textures, ripe winds, consolation from the violas in the second subject, and dark growling from the trombones and tuba. On those rare occasions when Sommerville wasn’t called for, the horns still sounded glorious.
All the horns were called for, and shone, at the beginning of the Scherzo, but in the “Etwas langsamer” middle section it was Sommerville’s inversion of the seven-note theme that told us the hunt had lost its way, and William R. Hudgins’s scrambling clarinet that suggested where the rabbit might have got to. The Trio, with its solos for oboe (Ferrillo), clarinet (Hudgins), and flute (Elizabeth Rowe), was redolent of thrushes and larks. The Finale went in the same vein as the first movement: a restless pulsing in the strings that verged on hysteria, a spooky descending three-note horn call from Sommerville that ushered in the apocalyptic main theme, and then the gathering of forces from the previous movements, the Bruckner rhythm, the first-movement horn call, the third-movement horn call, the sad march. Blomstedt gave the main theme room to be terrifying, and the brass outburst that followed the bird theme hinted at both panic and triumph. He kept the several climaxes compact, as if to remind us the skies hadn’t opened yet. By the time he reached the blaze-of-glory coda, he seemed an Old Testament prophet leading his orchestra to the promised land.
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.