Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, the last one he completed, is an 80-minute pilgrimage through desolation and religious doubt, and an agonized performance can put listeners on the rack. The one Zubin Mehta led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Wednesday, the lone work on the program in a Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall, didn’t exactly storm heaven, but it did move with a Schubertian grace.
The concert began with an unannounced prelude, the national anthems of the United States and Israel. The audience stood, along with those members of the orchestra who could do so while playing.
Mehta then slid into the symphony’s dotted opening theme. I was curious as to whether his view of the symphony has changed since his 1989 recording of it with the Israel Philharmonic. For the most part, it hasn’t. Those powerful opening bars still moved too confidently for a minor-key movement that can’t decide whether it’s in C or B-flat. The pastoral second subject seemed a shade quicker and less caressing than it was 25 years ago, and the big climax midway through, where the music threatens to plummet into a bottomless pit, was tethered.
The Scherzo underplayed Bruckner’s obsessive counting and grinding dissonances — not altogether a bad thing. But the Trio was scarcely slower, despite the “langsam” marking. And there was no pausing to admire the otherworldly harmonic vistas that the two psychopomp harps introduce in the Adagio. In his Bruckner Ninth with the BSO back in January, Christoph Eschenbach dared to stand alongside the composer and look into the abyss. Mehta kept closing his eyes.
There was still much to admire. Mehta shaped each movement carefully, registering the ebb and flow of the various subjects, and his climaxes, if not distended, had their own compact majesty. The orchestra, its first and second violins antiphonally seated, as Bruckner would have expected, served up sweet strings, characterful winds, and thunderous timpani; only the brass was occasionally, and intriguingly, brash. The coda of the opening Allegro moderato, in which the rest of the orchestra evaporates while the trumpets and horns bray into an empty universe (Bruckner called this moment “the annunciation of death”), was chilling. The Adagio stretched out to 26 minutes (it could have stretched even farther); at the end, Mehta turned the falling motif of the first movement into a lullaby, the composer falling into God’s hands. And if the finale, marked “nicht schnell” (“not fast”), was very “schnell” indeed, the coda, in which Bruckner layers the themes of all four movements, made falling into a triumph.