Franz Welser-Möst misses few opportunities to declare his affinity with Anton Bruckner. The conductor, after all, is from Linz in Upper Austria, and Bruckner was born twelve decades earlier in a village just outside the same town. From London to Vienna, Welser-Möst has believed it necessary consciously to advocate for Bruckner’s music. He has even gone as far as dubbing him the “grandfather of minimalism”, to explain pairing his symphonies with the works of John Adams in a recent Cleveland Orchestra residency at Carnegie Hall.

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni

This performance of the Fourth Symphony, the final act in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s three-concert run at Carnegie Hall, did not quite live up to that billing. Although the Philharmonic were on far more eager form than they often are, that did not translate into the technical standards expected of orchestral performances at today’s highest levels, nor the precision that Welser-Möst’s bland reading of Benjamin Korstvedt’s new edition of this symphony needed to elevate it beyond the mundane.

In between frowns there was much to enjoy. Those characteristic Viennese tremolos – as important to Bruckner’s music as to Wagner’s – shimmered in a way no other orchestra can achieve. Welser-Möst found a fine ebb and flow in the slow movement, and if some of Bruckner’s more fractured quiet passages lacked intensity the brassy climax more than made up with its unadulterated sunshine. Portly brass in the scherzo depicted Bruckner’s rural landscaping with a rarefied energy, mud and all.

Generally, though, this Bruckner verged on the maddening. At times the Philharmonic produced a stunning creaminess of a deep, old gold, especially in the slow movement and towards the end of the finale (the coda to which was simply outstanding). At others, communication between parts was sorely lacking. Take the multiplicity of tempi offered by various orchestral sections for the opening of the finale, for instance, or the wider reluctance to sacrifice some contrapuntal lines for the sake of others. More crucially, despite magical individual moments, orchestra and conductor alike rarely settled on a steady underlying tempo for a phrase, which led directly to some unnerving relationships between Bruckner’s sentences, let alone his extended paragraphs and links between movements.

Programming a Bruckner symphony with Berg’s Violin Concerto is a favourite Welser-Möst conceit. The Berg draws attention to Bruckner’s more forward-looking moves, without forcing him to contend with the witty vim of Haydn, the lofty simplicity of Mozart, or the concision of Beethoven, all composers one more often hears Bruckner’s works paired with.

Here Welser-Möst and soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann tried to turn this searing, confessional piece into a chamber concerto. It worked in part, although really to come off it would have needed a more thematically alert orchestral contribution. Welser-Möst took a late-Romantic view of the score, heavily underlining Berg’s repeated phrases as a way of explaining structure, which sometimes proved revelatory – particularly in the build-up to the clarinets’ gorgeously hushed invocation of the “Es ist genug” chorale – but more often came at the expense of a more holistic view. The result was a languid reading from soloist and orchestra alike (particularly in the first tableau), although a touching one. Zimmermann was on especially humble form, playing into the orchestra while duetting, and standing directly behind the concertmasters’ desk when, in the second movement, his part is progressively taken on and left behind by the first violins. There was nothing at all that jarred in Zimmermann’s finely graceful contribution, though he was often swamped by the orchestra and there was more than a tinge of anonymity to his playing.

Zimmermann concluded with an admirably controlled encore, the Andante from Bach’s A minor Violin Sonata. Welser-Möst, clearly furious at premature applause after the Bruckner, offered not even a polka to round out the Philharmonic’s Carnegie stay.