Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12, K. 414, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 are both works in three movements by Austrian composers. And apart from sharing the same Boston Symphony Orchestra program on Thursday evening, that is all they have in common. The Mozart concerto is a lighthearted, songful affair that aims to entertain rather than explore. The Bruckner symphony, his last, boldly goes, at least harmonically, where no composer had gone before, and where few have ventured since. Guest conductor and soloist Christoph Eschenbach found another common thread, giving a superbly romantic reading of both pieces.
Mozart’s K. 414 was one of three concertos he wrote in Vienna in the fall of 1782. The Andante second movement pays tribute to the recently deceased Johann Christian Bach, the youngest of J. S. Bach’s sons, by quoting from the Overture to his opera “La calamità de’ cuori.” Conducting from the keyboard, Eschenbach played hide-and-seek with the 32-piece orchestra, hopping about in the Allegro, reflecting wistfully in the Andante, seeming to improvise the Allegretto as he went along. It was a weighty, straight-faced interpretation. The Andante in particular was so searching that one could have mistaken it for late-period Beethoven.
Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, like his first eight, was intended to have four movements, but at the composer’s death, in 1896, the finale remained unfinished. Even in its incomplete state, it spans a good hour. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, it opens with a D-minor tremolo that suggests the oscillating universe, but the first subject group climaxes with three tremendous octave crashes, and the rest of the first movement, its obsessive hysteria rising to the level of panic attack, becomes a struggle between desperate D and heroic E-flat; in the coda, the trumpets heroically strive for that E-flat before the rest of the orchestra drags them down. The Scherzo slithers like the snake in the Garden of Eden; the Adagio is a lonely pilgrimage racked by chromatic nightmares on its way to E-major serenity.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Like Claudio Abbado in his 1999 Symphony Hall performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, Eschenbach mastered the harmonic motion of this vast spiritual drama, its ebb and flow, its tension and release. And he did so on a colossal scale, with outer movements that ran 30 minutes each. Textures were massive, but there was toothsome detail as well. Bruckner’s abrupt tempo shifts were not smoothed over, and neither were his rests short-shrifted. Dissonances were as brutal and pitiless as the composer meant them to be; the final resolution was that much more moving. The Ninth is a cosmic symphony; on this occasion, it received a cosmic performance.