A spiritual Bruckner journey with Nelsons, BSO; superficial Schumann from Wang

February 15, 2019 at 12:30 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Bruckner and Schumann Thursday night.

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Bruckner and Schumann Thursday night.

Final symphonies can relay a composer’s parting thoughts on subjects that extend well beyond musical ideas. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was his last declaration of contemporary republican values, the final chorus proclaiming that all men were brothers in an age of war and revolution. Mahler’s own Ninth is often seen as a searching farewell to life.

Anton Bruckner never completed his Symphony No. 9 in D minor. But its surviving three movements—spanning nearly an hour—offer a glimpse into the mind of one of Austria’s most humble and unique composers. With its echoes of previous works, Bruckner’s Ninth sums up a creative life that found recognition only at the very end of his difficult life.

In the hands of Andris Nelsons, Bruckner’s final symphony took on a mysterious and broadly spiritual dimension. Leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall Thursday night, the conductor conveyed a timeless sense of serenity and profound depth though this music.

Bruckner’s symphonies are one of Nelsons’ specialties. In recent seasons he has led the BSO in the composer’s Third, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies. He also recorded most of those works with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon.

The symphonies are sprawling in length, yet Bruckner’s musical canvases don’t resemble Mahler’s all-embracing expressions of the known and unknown worlds. Instead, Bruckner’s symphonies are more contemplative, their moment-to-moment structures containing a mix of styles. The composer’s meticulous counterpoint and part writing show a careful hand familiar with Bach’s technique, but his loose structure is shot through with a Wagnerian chromaticism that angered certain critics in the conservative Vienna of his day.

Those elements make the Ninth a particularly reverential statement that has stood the test of time. Nelsons led Thursday night’s performance as if he were taking listeners on a tour through a spacious cathedral. Lingering in the first movement, he drew out each string and wind phrase as if they were chants, the lines building to imposing towers of sound. Cellos and basses unspooled earthy melodies in other sections, and the brasses answered with dark harmonies. The lyrical passages flowered beautifully, and even Bruckner’s pauses had a dramatic tension.

Nelsons’ reading was also one of bold contrasts. The Scherzo was lively and sweeping, the main theme’s unison octaves and clamorous dissonances coursing with demonic urgency. Nelsons opened the throttle even more for a delicate Trio before the Scherzo returned with additional fury.

The final Adagio is the heart of Bruckner’s Ninth, and Nelsons shaped every woodwind and string passage with fine attention to detail. Yet he always kept an eye towards the big picture. The final, mercurial passages erupted into a huge resonant chord that dissipated into distant horn calls, bringing the symphony to a hushed and sublime conclusion.

The concert’s first half, which featured pianist Yuja Wang in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, offered more flash than substance.

There’s no mistaking Wang’s technique. The power and fire she conjures from the keyboard make for exciting listening, especially in late-Romantic repertoire.

But her interpretations are often perplexing. Thursday night, the pianist played Schumann’s concerto as if she were playing Rachmaninoff. Her opening chords, taken at breakneck speed, were a blur, and the octaves that follow the first theme were too loud and heavy for Schumann’s sensitive style.

Though it does look ahead to the virtuosic concertos of the late-nineteenth century, Schumann’s Piano Concerto is still imbued with a sense of Classical clarity and finesse. And Wang’s performance, at least in the outer movements, laid on the weight and speed when it could have used more reflection and subtlety. In the finale, Wang’s cascading figures resulted in moments of heightened passion and drama. But on the whole this was an unconvincing performance, with her wide contrasts between light and shade leaving little expressive possibility in between. The second movement was the highlight, with Wang in a more relaxed, poetic vein.

Nelsons went with Wang’s two-dimensional vision and led an accompaniment that also seemed overly lush for this nuanced concerto. The audience, however, expressed admiration for Wang and showered her with applause. As an encore, she offered her own pearly-toned arrangement of Gluck’s Mélodie from Orfeo ed Euridice.

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Andris Nelsons’ recording of Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 11 with the BSO won Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album (Classical) Sunday night. The live recording, released in July 2018 on Deutsche Grammophon, is the third release in Nelsons’ ongoing survey of Shostakovich’s complete symphonies. Previous releases the series earned Grammys in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

Posted in Performances


One Response to “A spiritual Bruckner journey with Nelsons, BSO; superficial Schumann from Wang”

  1. Posted Feb 16, 2019 at 2:46 pm by Debra Yoo

    I share your take on this concert. The Bruckner was majestic. The Schumann was disappointing; the soloist’s playing sounded forced to me and the orchestra more or less had to go along with her odd choices. I wanted to go home and listen to Ivan Moravec play it instead.

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