‘Bruckner? Bruckner? Who is he? Where does he live? What can he do?”
So opened an 1884 article by the composer Hugo Wolf, though BSO audiences could be forgiven for asking the same questions.
OK, in truth, Bruckner has not so much been missing from the BSO’s subscription diet as have Bruckner performances led by the orchestra’s music director. Because James Levine professed no sympathy for the composer’s monumental scores, the last time the orchestra played Bruckner under its own maestro was almost two decades ago, in October 1997, when Seiji Ozawa led the Ninth Symphony.
With the arrival of Andris Nelsons, however, the BSO now has a genuine and instinctive Bruckner advocate at its helm. On Thursday night, before leading the towering Seventh Symphony, his first Bruckner with the orchestra, Nelsons turned to the audience with apparent spontaneity and spoke about his own love for this music, and his excitement for the orchestra to be embarking on a new journey into Bruckner’s symphonies during the seasons to come. He drew a knowing laugh by referring to a certain Bruckner-phobia, a fear of the music’s length and seriousness not uncommon in certain quarters of today’s audiences.
If giving Bruckner the benefit of the doubt in our own distractible culture requires some special coaxing, Nelsons’s performance on Thursday made for an eloquent plea. This was a persuasive account: texturally vital, musically alert, and sonically rich. Yes, Bruckner’s works are lengthy, but any performance worth its salt both stretches and quickens time through an immersion in a sound world with a temporality all its own. Indeed, Bruckner’s God was no divine watchmaker, but rather one that obliterates the tyranny of the watch altogether.
In this case, Nelsons’s interpretation found a charismatic balance between weight and transparency of detail, from the diaphanous sheen of the pianissimo tremolos to the radiant brass-heavy climaxes of the first and second movements. Commentators always note the sorrowing memorial to Wagner in the Adagio, but equally notable here was the dance-like lilting quality that Nelsons brought to the lyrical theme that follows.
The Scherzo’s opening was propelled with a taut rhythmic energy, and the players’ commitment here, and throughout, was palpable. Symphony Hall’s famed acoustic also does not hurt on these occasions. In fact, certain moments on Thursday reminded you of how deeply this particular space and this particular repertoire resonate with each other, as if standing in some kind of ancient astronomical alignment.
Prior to the Bruckner came Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, with the German pianist Lars Vogt as the fleet-fingered soloist. There were moments of chamber-like delicacy, and flutist Elizabeth Ostling and oboist Keisuke Wakao made winsome contributions from the orchestra. Yet while all performances balance art and some degree of artifice, one missed here a certain directness of statement at times, especially amidst the micro-inflections of Thursday’s Adagio.
But by the end of the program, the Bruckner’s dwarfing scale had cast a long shadow backward across the entire evening, as if to retroactively swap out the questions with which we opened. Mozart? What Mozart?