Two devoutly religious Austrians who lived a century apart, Mozart and Bruckner are often paired on concert programs, the former’s classical restraint and graceful lyricism complementing the latter’s harmonic daring and symphonic grandeur. Saturday evening’s concert of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major and Bruckner’s incomplete Ninth Symphony with Christoph Eschenbach, Till Fellner, and the New York Philharmonic brought two masterworks together with a performance of technical mastery, orchestral luster, and several inspired moments.

Christoph Eschenbach © Eric Brissaud
Christoph Eschenbach
© Eric Brissaud

Fellner played with impeccable facility, performing the two cadenzas of the concerto with impressive virtuosity. Eschenbach drove the orchestra to match Fellner, but at several points the orchestra appeared to be following at the pace of – or just behind – Fellner rather than Eschenbach. The musical texture was warm and full but did not always adapt to the stormier moments in the music. The piece felt as if it ended quite quickly – indeed, tempi were on the brisker side throughout, even bordering on the hasty at times. 

Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony saw the full orchestra occupy the stage, presenting a challenge of different dimensions altogether. Eschenbach conducted the “Feierlich” opening with apposite gravitas, but the homogeneity of the musical texture became apparent again shortly into the development of the first movement, where the music would have benefited from a different interpretive treatment. Tempi were quite idiosyncratic, and whereas some of the slowed tempi worked quite well, a particular trombone passage toward the end of the development was reduced to a glacial pace for no apparent reason. Notwithstanding, the movement finished strongly with a compelling coda and a resounding open fifth, appropriately conveying the hollow feeling of an incomplete minor triad.

The Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony is – like a typical Bruckner Scherzo – full of whirling rhythms, recurring fragmentary motifs and a recognizable, rugged vigor. The very first harmony, orchestrated mildly for a few woodwinds, belies its soft dynamic with an unsettling dissonance, soon to be carried forth to a grating climax. The Philharmonics’s woodwind and brass sections shone most strongly here, bringing the fiery themes to the forefront of the musical texture. Articulative unity sometimes felt lacking, especially in sections of the Scherzo where triplets are superimposed atop dotted rhythms. The Trio was executed idiomatically but lacked the galloping clip that effectively differentiates it from the Scherzo proper. The reprise of the Scherzo saw a few mismatched starts in the woodwinds, but a powerful finish left the final chord ringing through the hall.

Eschenbach’s slow tempi were most well-suited to the Adagio. The harshly dissonant melodic minor ninth opening the movement was palpably chilling as rendered by the Philharmonic’s strings, and the tension of the movement did not relent but built up slowly and surely to its inexorable climax. And quite a terrifying climax it was: the usually familiar dominant thirteenth chord that Bruckner wrote at the end of the Adagio is so jarring because of the dissonant close voicing and the unbridled orchestration. Eschenbach gave it appropriate weight and paused for a pregnant second before continuing on with the E major finish of the movement. The Adagio ended serenely, the Philharmonic’s French horns resounding softly but resolutely throughout the hall. In spite of several individual shortcomings, the redemptive execution of the Adagio rendered the evening’s performance convincing and effective.