When it comes to the venerated Austro-German pantheon of composers, we tend to imagine figures whose greatness is beyond debate: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and the like. That air of uncontested genius, however, has never gathered around the reputation of Anton Bruckner. Of all canonical composers, he remains the one that expert listeners can still dismiss with impunity. During his own lifetime, Brahms lampooned Bruckner’s works as “symphonic boa constrictors.” And even Bruckner’s own advocates spoke of the formless execution of his ideas, which became an enduring Brucknerian canard: his symphonies as the orchestral equivalent of baggy suits. More recently, no less a tastemaker than James Levine seemed to concur — during his tenure as Boston Symphony Orchestra music director, Levine placed Bruckner’s music on a very select (do-not) playlist.
But this music’s local fortunes have changed dramatically, ever since the arrival of a certain irrepressible Latvian at the orchestra’s helm. Andris Nelsons’s passion for Bruckner’s work has translated into a steady diet of the composer’s symphonies, typically doled out one per season. And the musical public has been responding. A devoted Brucknerian of my acquaintance recently confessed he drives over two hours round trip to hear these annual BSO-Bruckner extravaganzas. And Symphony Hall this week was impressively well attended for Tuesday night’s account of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony.
True, the Fourth, with its rivers of dark-hued lyricism and its cheerfully percolating scherzo, may be the easiest Bruckner symphony to love. Interestingly, Nelsons’s sympathy for this music manifests itself paradoxically in, by his own standards, an almost business-like mentality, as if this music is simply too serious — or perhaps too religiously sincere — for podium showboating. Tuesday’s account was riveting in its sheer directness and vehemence, with Nelsons seemingly determined to lay bare Bruckner’s architecture of awe. He also showed a special affection for the lilt of the Ländlers, those passing waltz-like figures that dot these works like wildflowers in a meadow. The orchestra played for him unstintingly, with brass at once pointed and glowing.
The first half of the night featured Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. As initial forays into a new genre go, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto does not slip in cautiously through the backdoor but boldly declares its arrival (Beethoven in fact wrote it after his Second Piano Concerto but wisely had it published first). In the outer movements, orchestral grandeur and quasi-militaristic display are offset by a more reflective solo line. And the sublime slow movement conjoins rigor and rapture in that luminous manner that is Beethoven’s alone. Tuesday’s performance, featuring the distinguished Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, was elegant and ebullient in equal parts, with Nelsons and the orchestra serving as sensitive partners in both tone and style.
For many years, the BSO served up a conspicuously “light” program for Thanksgiving week, as if listeners needed to reserve their strength for gorging on turkey and waging retail battle at the local mall. But this type of program of substance offers a much more conducive occasion for taking a breath, for giving thanks.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Tuesday night (repeats Nov. 24 and 25)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.