Classical Concert Review: The Boston Philharmonic Performs Bruckner’s Symphony No.8


By Jonathan Blumhofer

It was an epic performance of an epic piece, imbued with Brucknerian character.

Benjamin Zander conducting the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Symphony no. 8 at the symphony hall. Photo: Hilary Scott.

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) and music director Benjamin Zander made a triumphant return to the stage Friday night with an imposing performance of Symphony no. 8 at the symphony hall.

The choice of Eighth was perhaps surprising – it’s Bruckner’s longest and most complex symphony, after all – but, especially given the orchestra’s twenty-month hiatus, it was certainly appropriate.

Rarely heard in Boston, this 1887 score (which was revised before its premiere in 1892), is essentially a study of chasmal contrasts of texture, tone, and emotion that seem to suggest a struggle between belief and despair (or something similar cosmic; Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic). This is all written roughly over four movements that last about eighty-four minutes.

Despite its real demands – endurance, focus, and performing prowess – in good hands, Bruckner’s Eighth stands out as one of the canon’s most visionary, triumphant and accessible works.

This is what turned out on Friday.

Zander is a longtime champion of the Austrian symphonist. Prior to the performance, in fact, he received the Julio Kilyeni Medal of Honor from the Bruckner Society of America, an award previously given to Bruckner proselytes such as Otto Klemperer, Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur and Herbert Blomstedt.

Intoxicating enterprise, that, but fully deserved – and more than justified by the mere reading of the Eighth Zander subsequently taken from the BPO.

Throughout Friday’s performance, his mastery of the structure of the music was infallible: the tempos still moved intelligently, but the conductor knew when to hold back for a moment to admire the view. Moreover, Zander was fully in tune with the spirit of the music and not once bowled over by its sprawling architecture.

For its part, BPO picked up where it left off in February 2020: with play of impressive purpose, vigor and control. There was power and power to be had, and a dime a dozen (especially from the enlarged brass section). But also delicacy – the flourishes of the woods in the middle of the finish have been beautifully processed – and throughout an impressive elasticity and agility to the phrasing of the whole.

Indeed, from the strong point of the first movement, the orchestral performance was imbued with Brucknerian character. Pretentious brass choruses have given way to delicate woodwind solos and twisted string tremolos. The textures were impressively fine – you could easily hear the play of triple versus double rhythms as well as the larger contrapuntal patterns of movement unfolding – and the contours of the music were carefully elucidated.

In the Scherzo, Zander and his forces stoked a mischievous and failing storm. The BPO reading was heavily shaped and remarkably vigorous in the outer thirds of the movement, as the extended trio flowed warmly, underscored by its handful of brief harp interjections (on Friday played by an enlarged section of three harpists).

For the massive Adagio, Zander skillfully balanced the coloristic and expressive demands of the music. The playing of the strings was fervent and devotional. The coppers were browned, the woods sang radiant. Everything was perfectly mixed and balanced.

Benjamin Zander receiving the Kilyeni Medal at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott.

As a result, the expressive core of the music was burning hot. The moments of introspection of the movement, like the recurring mystical sequence for strings and harps, shone. Its heyday was resplendent. Moreover, the transformational structure of the Adagio – this is where Bruckner really elaborates on music’s conflict between faith and doubt – has become clear.

Meanwhile, the finale, which culminates in an affirmative resolution of the early materials and ideas of the Symphony, led boldly. Remarkably, there was no relaxation in the intensity of the BPO game. On the contrary: each new thematic gesture was imbued with a seductive sense of discovery. The triumphant coda blazed.

So in the end, it was an epic performance of an epic piece.

The large and supernaturally attentive audience of the night – there was no cough during one of the several luftpausen – had the intuition. They rewarded the efforts of the BPO with the loudest ovation I have heard at Symphony Hall since it reopened for concerts in September: Rarely has the meaning of perseverance and success in the eighth seemed to match a moment and resonate with the audience as forcefully as it does on Friday.

The Boston Philharmonic returns to Symphony Hall to perform music by Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and Brahms at 8 p.m. on November 10.

Jonathan blumhofer is a composer and violist active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and has been performed by various ensembles including the American Composers Orchestra, the Kiev Philharmonic, the Camerata Chicago, the Xanthos Ensemble and the Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his PhD from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music reviews for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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