Eschenbach does impressive double play with BSO in Mozart and Bruckner

January 17, 2014 at 1:27 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Christoph Eschenbach leads the BSO in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

As frequently as Anton Bruckner’s music has appeared on the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s programs in the orchestra’s long history, the composer’s final symphony isn’t one that tops the list. It has only been heard twice in Symphony Hall in the last fifteen years, with the most recent performance in 2007 led by Marek Janowski.

It’s hard to imagine why this is the case. Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor is a musical world unto itself. Though the composer left it unfinished before his death in 1896, the work has remained a powerful essay in the medium. Its three movements, which together run well over an hour, contain mercurial lyricism, earth-shattering power, and soaring cantabiles that peek out from the dark, cloudy textures like rays of sunshine.

Thursday night, Christoph Eschenbach returned to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an inspired, if slightly distant, reading of the colossal work.

Eschenbach’s Bruckner is noted more for its strength of articulation than enveloping warmth. With deliberate gestures, the conductor pulled luminous sheets of sound from the orchestra. Some of the playing, though, wasn’t up to the usual BSO standards. Brass and wind attacks in exposed phrases sounded murky, and the violin statements in the second movement’s Trio lacked pinpoint focus.

But those moments were rare. The solo woodwind and horn melodies that spring out of the music’s primordial themes brought mournful calm. The BSO brass, fleshed out by four Wagner tubas, answered with impressive walls of sound when Eschenbach called upon them. And the tragic strains of the first movement and hard-driving rhythms of the Scherzo came off with thunderous force. Eschenbach and company were at their best in the Adagio, where the chromatic phrases that look ahead to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht stirred in the lush orchestral textures.

On the first half of the program, Eschenbach, conducting from the keyboard, offered Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414.

Mozart and Bruckner make for an enjoyable pairing on any concert program. And this concerto, with its delicate charm and intimacy, complemented the latter composer’s soul-searching musical journey.

Eschenbach led the small band of strings and winds at middling tempos. The ensemble played superbly; Mozart’s nimble lines glowed with warm blend. Eschenbach answered with a sweetened and ghostlike piano tone. One wanted a little more clarity to his touch, but the performance had its affecting moments. His filigree in the outer movements coalesced in light waves, the phrases floating gently over the ensemble’s more deliberate statements. The hymn-like chords of the Andante, in Eschenbach’s hands, echoed as if from a distance.

The program repeats 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.

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