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BPO: Transcendent Mozart, Searing Bruckner


The Boston Philharmonic paired minor-key works by Austrian composers Friday at Symphony Hall in its last concert of the season. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 not only begins in C minor but also ends there. Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony begins in D minor, and the fourth and final movement starts in that key, but the composer didn’t live to finish the work; the three movements that one regularly hears end in a conflicted E major. The Mozart, with Italian guest soloist Alessandro Deljavan, sounded transcendent, and Zander’s Bruckner stayed sharply focused and true to the conductor’s concept.  

Written and premiered in 1786, K.491 is one of just two Mozart piano concertos in a minor key, but it’s unusual in a number of other ways. It calls for oboes and clarinets, plus horns, trumpets, and timpani — the largest orchestra Mozart gave a piano concerto. Its first movement, like those of Nos. 11 and 14, is in 3/4. I last heard it in 2017, when 71-year-old Romanian pianist Radu Lupu gave an immaculate, unaffected reading with Andris Nelsons and the BSO. Deljavan was making his second appearance with Zander and the BPO, having played Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto here in 2019.

The Allegro’s foreboding chromatic initial theme seems to anticipate Don Giovanni, which Mozart completed the following year, and when the piano enters, after two minutes, it doesn’t restate that theme but comments on it. Zander packed an opera’s worth of drama into those opening two minutes, with big timpani and ripe winds. Nelsons, if I remember, had the full complement of BSO strings. Zander pared his string section down to 38, creating a balance surely closer to what Mozart had in mind. Zander’s  exemplary clarity allowed his winds and brass to shine throughout.

Deljavan’s solo exposition, far from conjuring Don Giovanni, seemed to have in mind The Marriage of Figaro, which premiered just a month after the concerto. This is not to say he and Zander weren’t on the same page — rather that together they created a complementary exploration of the two operas. Deljavan’s classical-shading-into-romantic sensibility felt perfect for this work. He brought to the Allegro weight and inflection, a tonal arsenal that ranged from rich to melting, and rippling, rhapsodic passagework. His solo development was a study in wistful nostalgia; his cadenza, going from torrential to reflective in an eyeblink, had the feel of an improvisation that summed up the movement in 90 seconds.

The E-flat Larghetto is marked in 2/2. Alfred Brendel has argued that this must be a notational error, that in 2/2 rather than 4/4 the movement goes too quickly. But 2/2 accords with the Larghetto’s untroubled innocence. The eight minutes that Deljavan and Zander took seemed just right, less classically conceived than Lupu’s or, say, Géza Anda’s, and actually slower than Brendel’s own 1973 recording with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The piano is set mostly against the winds, which in the C-minor and A-flat middle sections were now cheeky, now rustic. Deljavan maintained a singing line punctuated every so often by the hint of a sigh; his coda was heartbreaking.

The Allegretto finale, back in C minor, is a march and eight variations, a game of hide-and-seek that suggests Cherubino’s attempts to elude Count Almaviva in Figaro. Deljavan and Zander teased each other, Deljavan playful in the first variation, then militant in the march-like third, as if imagining Figaro’s great “Non piú andrai” aria as Cherubino is threatened with consignment to the Count’s regiment. The winds burbled in the fourth variation before turning sly in the sixth; Deljavan unleashed turbulent cascades in the fifth, and then, after a big ritard, created a dramatic entry into the 6/8 final variation. That led to a rousing mock-martial finish. It’s been suggested that this movement also tends to go too quickly, but at 10 minutes Delavan and Zander were, again, spot-on.

Delavan gave one substantial encore: Schubert’s Allegretto D.915, also in C minor. Here classical-shading-into-romantic became outright romantic, the Schumann-anticipating middle section alternating moody and moonlit. Like the concerto, the encore was beautifully paragraphed. Both performances made me wonder about the tepid review I gave Deljavan’s Brahms Second Concerto in 2019. 

Bruckner’s Ninth is cosmic; had he finished the fourth and final movement, it would have run close to an hour and a half. Like Beethoven’s Ninth it begins in D minor, and like Beethoven’s Ninth it opens on a string tremolo, the oscillation of the quantum universe. The first subject group alone has eight elements (as Derek Watson pointed out, “There are more things of heaven and earth than were ever dreamt of in any other first-subject group”), climaxing with three terrifying octave crashes, the last of which drops from E flat to a momentary D before recovering to E flat. Rescue arrives via the lulling cradle song of the A-major second subject, but the underpinning seven-note ostinato in the second violins betrays the composer’s counting mania. The third subject, back in D minor, finds the first violins obsessing over D while an ominous descending ostinato develops in the clarinets and troubling harmonic vistas unfold. 

Bruckner eschews development in favor of counterstatements where the original themes appear in new and increasingly alarming colors. The cacophonous climax finds the first violins clinging to a stratospheric B flat while the horns and violas get claustrophobic. The coda begins with a menacing timpani roll and a mist of anarchic mutterings. Last Judgment hysteria mounts in the string ostinatos while the trumpets obsess on E, and when the orchestra subsides into a mock-triumphant D minor, the trumpets try to lift the movement into E flat, their outbursts heroically, horrifically, failing as the orchestra drags them down.

The jackhammer Scherzo — also in D minor, but the second violins lead another nasty revolt with their insistent D flat — is “relieved” by an F-sharp Trio that slithers about the Garden with its apple. The E-major Adagio opens on an upward-leaping ninth that withholds the security of a home key. Religious consolation is attempted by a second subject in A flat, but the movement persists in its lonely pilgrimage through icy wastes to an illusory oasis and then a chromatic nightmare (seven of the 12 notes of that scale fused in a single death’s-head chord). It all limps home via allusions to the Miserere of the composer’s D-minor Mass, the Adagio of his Eighth, and the opening phrase of his Seventh. The finale, to judge from the pages that survive, would have been apocalyptic.

Alessandro Deljavan (Hilary Scott photos)

Zander’s reading of the symphony was in line with his most recent performance in 2017. At 23 minutes each, the outer movements went by on the quick side to my ears. Yet those were normal timings for conductors like Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, Otto Klemperer, and Hans Knappertsbusch back in the 1950s; it wasn’t till 1965, when Bruckner tempos had begun to slow, that a recording — Zubin Mehta’s with the Vienna Philharmonic — exceeded the hour mark. Nowadays, readings between 65 and 70 minutes are common. Still, it’s instructive to compare this fleet 56-minute Ninth with Zander’s 2021 performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, which at 86 minutes is at the expansive end of the spectrum.     

As in 2017, there could have been more air around Bruckner’s thematic blocks. Zander in his pre-concert talk noted the need to allow for reverberation at the end of sections, but in practice he still tends to push forward, as if, like Nelsons and the BSO in their 2019 Ninth, he wanted to challenge the heavens rather than explore them. Heroic throughout, the brass section was also loud: neither the horns’ opening salvo nor their finishing echo of the composer’s Seventh came across piano as marked. Balance spotlighted the brass to good effect, though at the first movement’s final grinding climax, the horns submerged the trumpet line. And tempos did not always adhere to Bruckner’s instructions. Zander’s slight acceleration into the first movement’s initial octave crashes was effective. In the Adagio, however, the march that materializes just after the return of the first subject took off without any prompting from the score.

Quibbles aside, there was much to admire. The first movement is marked “Feierlich, Misterioso”; Zander might have been more majestic than mysterious, but those initial octave crashes sounded cataclysmic, as did every climax in the movement. The second subject is marked “Langsamer” and actually was; if the “Moderato” third subject edged toward Allegretto, it still set off Bruckner’s obsessive alarm bells. The coda was long on shock, short on awe. Yet the overall architecture was palpable, something not every conductor achieves. There’s certainly room for Zander’s fire-and-brimstone view of this movement as opposed to, say, Klemperer’s murky purgatory.

The Scherzo, both volcanic and blinding, suggested a Bruckner waiting for the sun to explode and reveal the Creator; the queasy Trio clouded over like the ninth plague of Egypt, all the better for the snake to strike. Running ten minutes, this movement also occupied the fast lane, but it offered power with no hint of congestion As for the “Langsam, Feierlich” Adagio, with its burnished Wagner tubas and luminous oases, Zander made it more a call to arms than a 40-day slog in the

wilderness, sounding determined rather than desperate.A He did not give short-shrift to Bruckner’s chromatic nightmare, and the subsequent recovery didn’t try to make the final E-major ascent anything more than a gesture toward Heaven.

At 85, Zander has decided what he wants from this symphony, and he took total control of Friday’s performance. If his Bruckner Ninth offered more passion and less Parsifal than some others, he’s earned the right to do it his way.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

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