Saturday night, Avery Fisher Hall saw a solid and well-crafted final performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 and Bruckner’s Symphony no. 3. The piano concerto was cleanly executed and so polished as to allow the Mozartean patina to shine clearly through. Emanuel Ax played with a crisp yet sonorous articulation which seems to be typical of good interpretations of the concerto, and overall played exceedingly well. In utter command of his instrument, Ax dispensed perfectly measured-out gestures, crescendi and decrescendi spooling out to precise levels, sometimes over long phrases, often anticipating the orchestral texture to follow. This anticipation also extended to the interplay between solo piano and full symphonic textures, with Ax sliding the piano lines into position opposite the orchestra, leading the listener into and out from tutti sections with an affective nuance that served Mozart’s style particularly well. The Brendel cadenza – subtle, measured – was in line with the rest of the performance, but I couldn’t help wishing for an ex tempore performance from such a giant of performance as Mr Ax.

Emanuel Ax © Maurice Jerry Beznos
Emanuel Ax
© Maurice Jerry Beznos

Bruckner dedicated his Symphony no. 3 to Wagner, after the latter had expressed a real interest in the work in 1873. It’s not hard to hear a certain affinity to Wagner’s work, but that similarity is often skin-deep (that is, such an affinity is an artifact of the orchestration of the work, rather than structural or formal imitation). In fact, the transparency of the tonal structure throughout the Third Symphony might even be heard as antithetical to Wagner’s chromatic palette.

In performance, the symphony started strong and lingered a bit too long. In its more brass-heavy and fiery moments, the first movement was the best approximation of 19th-century Viennese dubstep this listener has ever encountered – using my lungs as ears was not a sensation I’d expected from the evening. Nestled between these gusts of pathos, however, the cantabile passages seemed a touch saccharine. The Philharmonic does not have a Midas touch, and it’s fair to assume the lighter bits are not nearly as conducive to compelling performance as the heavy, tutti moments.

The Bruckner, which exists in three editions, was played in its final 1889 version. Alan Gilbert’s choice to use this revision is probably the safest choice (after all, Bruckner had the most time to rethink and rewrite this version), but it would not have been the version that Wagner had enthused over when the two composers met. I’m not saying that historical matters ought to take precedence over the musical experience or professionals’ judgments, or that Wagner’s judgments should preempt our own, but it is fascinating to contemplate how the revisions to Bruckner’s music (both with and without his knowledge) challenge our conception of the “authentic” work.

By virtue of sharing the bill with a Bruckner symphony, the Mozart concerto was perhaps a bit more open to a focus on instrumentation; given the quantity of reworking and revising Bruckner’s work has been subjected to, orchestration is always present in the minds of the more historically-minded audience members. Both works are subject to a sort of restraint – not of content, but of style. The sheer number of bodies on stage in the Bruckner ensured a kind of gravity and power, but also enforced a blurry feeling, a limitation on how sharp or bright the orchestra’s sound could get. In the first movement of the Mozart, the interplay between the piano’s left hand and the bass voices in the orchestra showed off the pliability of the line between accompaniment and soloist, with both sides testing and nudging the boundary, but neither breaking through nor radically upsetting the balance. Gilbert’s sensitive baton led both works through their paces with grace and polish.