A frigid final day of February in Boston needed all the heat it could get, and at Symphony Hall, Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra obliged. The performances of Mozart’s glittering Piano Concerto No. 25, with Harvard University’s Robert Levin as soloist, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 might not have been totally idiomatic, but they were energetic and committed.
Mozart finished the K.503 concerto at the end of 1786, even as he was completing his “Prague” Symphony. It’s a sophisticated work, all substance under the slick C-major surface, with an orchestra given to majestic processional statements and a soloist who undercuts the pomp and ceremony by asking riddles and playing hide-and-seek.
After an almost symphonic introduction that includes excursions into C minor, the orchestra issues repeated invitations to the piano. Levin, who has recorded many of the Mozart concertos, seemed impatient to get started. He burrowed into his instrument, with forceful accents that brought out the work’s anticipations of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, and Zander’s reduced orchestra followed suit, favoring earnest and heartfelt over sparkling and subtle. Most rewarding was the last-movement rondo, which went at a proper gavotte tempo.
Bruckner’s E-major Seventh pays tribute to Richard Wagner, who died early in 1883, as the symphony was being completed. The Adagio’s coda, with its quartet of Wagner tubas, serves as a eulogy, but there are also echoes of the “Ring” cycle, and the entire work can be heard as Bruckner’s loving gloss on “Parsifal,” which he had heard at its Bayreuth premiere in 1882.
Here Zander pressed forward, and the performance, like the Mozart, seemed faster than it actually was. The Allegro moderato opened with a powerful surge from the cellos, and the movement’s first statement ended in a melting cadence. But a sense of awe, of harmonic discovery, was missing, and also the composer’s unearthly calm. Rests seemed truncated, and the Adagio’s second subject was short on heartbreak. Zander did not, however, water Bruckner down. Hysteria reigned in the Allegro moderato’s third subject, and the Wagner eulogy, so often merely somber, registered such raw anguish that the climax didn’t really need the cymbal crash and triangle roll Bruckner’s friends induced him to add. The orchestra reveled in the wild and crazy ländler of the Scherzo; the kinetic dotted rhythm of the finale found Zander in his element.