Mahler had Walter, Mitropoulos and, most importantly, Bernstein to champion him in the US. Bruckner was never as fortunate... until now. When Andris Nelsons succeeded James Levine as Music Director of the Boston Symphony, he specifically mentioned Bruckner as a composer he would program regularly, in marked contrast to his predecessor’s antipathy. Franz Welser-Möst made a similar commitment when he took over in Cleveland. So Bruckner is finally receiving the attention he deserves, thanks to these two maestros and their performances, broadcasts and recordings. It is one thing to listen to CDs, but the full impact of a Bruckner symphony can only be experienced live and concertgoers in Boston and Cleveland finally have the opportunity to educate their ears and learn how to listen to this  singular composer.

Rudolf Buchbinder © Philipp Horak
Rudolf Buchbinder
© Philipp Horak

Nelsons performed the Third, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies the previous three seasons. In this, his fourth as Music Director, he chose the Fourth, perhaps Bruckner’s most accessible. He settles on a pulse for each movement which allows for relaxed forward motion, respecting Bruckner’s insistent “not so fast” markings, and for the cumulative effect of the climbing terraces of repeated phrases to build to their appropriate climaxes. It often seems like the music is directing him rather than the other way around.

Beginning with a whisper of a tremolo followed by the horn’s enigmatic call, the first movement was imbued with  mystery, majesty and warmth, monolithic but not marmoreal. The cellos and woodwinds painted the opening of the following Andante in darker colors. A steady, inexorable, march – dirgelike yet prayerful – was built by Nelsons to a glorious blaze of brass before ending on a note of quiet consolation. Jovial hunting horns opening the Scherzo announced a bright, bucolic idyll. Bruckner, like Mahler, favored the Ländler. Where Mahler’s dancers often sound like they’re clumping around in heavy, hobnailed boots, Bruckner’s are nimble and light on their feet, like the composer himself (an admired dancer). Nelsons’ use of rubato here gave the dance an appealing, lighthearted lilt.

Bruckner labored over the finale, but it remains problematic. Nelsons used Nowak’s 1953 edition of the score as first performed (Bruckner’s 1878-1880 revision of his first version). Still, there is so much thematic material, including borrowings from Wagner, that it can seem an aimless muddle. Nelsons established a convincing hierarchy within the framework of a generously paced processional, ever mindful of the movement’s profound liturgical aspects and organ-like sonorities, and culminating in a hymn-like peroration of incandescent brass, echoing the final bars of the first movement.

Rudolf Buchbinder joined the orchestra to open the program with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. This is Beethoven in Mozart—Haydn mode, so Nelsons used a smaller orchestra than he did for last week’s Third Concerto and Buchbinder brought a deft, nimble touch to a collaboration which yielded a sparkling, ebullient performance. Uncharacteristically, the piano does not enter playing the first movement’s theme, a jolly, jaunty march, playing just fragments instead. Buchbinder mischievously and flamboyantly teased the orchestra with variations and dazzling passagework knowing full well the piano never plays the complete march. Buchbinder used one of the shorter of the three cadenzas Beethoven wrote. Humor and bravura yielded to a tranquil, arresting, and introspective Largo of long, flowing, soulful phrases from both soloist and orchestra. The Rondo took off like a playful game of tag before ending on a Haydnesque surprise.

Buchbinder will turn 71 next week and has devoted most of his professional life to studying and performing Beethoven. Yet he approached this concerto with the enthusiasm and attention of someone mastering it for the first time, but with the solid technique of a veteran.