Returning after an absence of twelve years, Sir Simon Rattle—in his apprentice years back in the 1980s the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, now arguably the most well known and respected conductor of our day—led the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday night after an absence of twelve years. It was his first appearance with the orchestra at Disney Hall, his last directing a program of Ravel and Mahler during the orchestra’s final years at the old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

At the head of the program stood two works which on paper seem to sit uncomfortably next to each other. On one end stood the luminescent soundscape of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères; on the other the ethereal sublimity of Richard Wagner’s first act prelude to Lohengrin. What either piece had to do with the other wasn’t immediately apparent. But in an inspired twist Rattle presented the one right after the other with no pause, thereby fusing present and the past. The Ligeti—cascades of sound pouring forth from its score densely packed with staves, its pages heavy with notes that blackened them—led inevitably into the Wagner; the impression gained like watching a kaleidoscopic mosaic morphing into a silverpoint etching. It was at that moment that those lucky Disney Hall patrons whose vantage point allowed them to peer over the conductor’s shoulders were vouchsafed an image that eloquently summed up Rattle’s interpretive point, in case it hadn’t been made enough clear. As Atmosphères faded away, Rattle turned the last oversized page of this gigantic score to reveal, tucked away inside, the comparatively miniature sized score of the Lohengrin prelude. “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn,” once mused Ralph Waldo Emerson. Wagner, Rattle seemed to say, was that acorn; modern music its forest.

That fusion of past and present also allowed the Ligeti and Wagner to be seen through the lens of the other. Atmosphères sounded like the endless ebb and flow of the Rhine as refracted through an abstract expressionist stained glass; the oft-heard Lohengrin prelude alight with the audacity and newness that must have shocked its early audiences.

Wagner also was stamped on the works that followed by Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner. That was Wagner transformed, transfigured—and ultimately transcended.

The fragrant Rückert-Lieder of Mahler were a crossroads for its composer; the point where he bid farewell to the Wagnerian opulence of his Wunderhorn years and embraced the leaner textures that ultimately led to Das Lied von der Erde and the late symphonies. Opulence, however, was the defining trait of mezzo soprano Magdalena Kožená’s voice—who also happens to be Mrs. Simon Rattle. Rich-toned, dark, even smoky, it was a voice that filled the hall to its rafters, yet caressed Rückert’s words and Mahler’s svelte vocal lines with graceful sensitivity.

It was the baroque grandeur of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 with which Rattle chose to end the program. Though famous as a conductor of Mahler’s music, Bruckner’s work hasn’t been associated with Rattle—despite a fine recording of the composer’s Seventh from about twenty years ago. If Thursday night’s concert was any indication, however, he has evolved into a Bruckner conductor of the first rank.

Rattle boldly sheared off the Wagnerian plush that often couches this music. In its place was the symphony as a precursor to the anxiety of the 20th century—a work of bleak, expressionist power. Hanging over the listener was the reminder of the ailing Bruckner’s fight against time; his musical mind, at the very summit of its power, dueling with his ebbing body. But groaning loudest of all was this devout composer’s gnawing doubt over whether his “dear Lord” would allow him to finish the symphony that he had dedicated to him. Indeed, as Bruckner’s prayer journals of the time reveal, he began to doubt over whether He was even there. That deep vein of uncertainty that runs throughout the symphony—was devotion to God misplaced; is there redemption after death?—was tapped into by Rattle’s baton. It flared up in the wild rage of the scherzo and in the terrifying cry of a climax that crowns the symphony’s Adagio. Screeching at its head was the six-note chord that points the way forward to late Mahler and the Second Viennese School. Rattle leaned into it, its dissonance piercing the listener.

The performance was also one in which the work’s unfinished nature was thrust into the spotlight. Most conductors like to broaden the pace at the Adagio’s coda a la Mahler Ninth, lending the illusion of completeness. Rattle, on the other hand, kept the tempo tight, never slackening. Listening to it this way made one recall that Bruckner had come very close to producing a complete final movement; to confront the fact that the work is, after all, only a torso. Like Michelangelo's late sculptures—its figures desperately reaching out from the raw blocks of marble that they are destined to remain forever trapped in—Bruckner's final symphony fascinates with its fragmentary gestures, with the weirdness of its loose ends that lay unresolved.

This was a remarkable concert in every way; the orchestra playing above and beyond their already superlative selves. Twelve years was a long wait for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to host Sir Simon Rattle again. But with musicianship and interpretive depth of the quality he exhibited, the wait was well worth it.