Throughout, he led this D-minor concerto as if it were Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” full of courtly good manners and masculine power, where the vivacity on the surface barely masks the forbiddingly dark undercurrents. For the middle Romanza movement, Biss played the famous tunes like an opera aria, at turns confessional and beautifully seductive. It was easy to imagine the scene as a serenade, with Biss standing below a balcony, his voice carrying upward.
The Mozart was offered with a reduced ensemble. After intermission, the stage was absolutely full for Bruckner’s Eighth, including three harps stationed stage right and eight French horns, with half of the players doubling on so-called Wagner tubas — brass instruments that bridge the sonic space between horns and trombones, leading to a richer, more saturated sound. (And we must note that if a program works, it works: Runnicles led this exact pairing, the same Mozart concerto and Bruckner symphony, in 2011 with then-music director Robert Spano as piano soloist.)
Bruckner’s maximalism — the huge orchestra; the drawn-out breaths, like a pipe organ; those three harps, given moments of great prominence like visitations from another world; the extra-long length, almost 80 minutes — messes with a listener’s perception of time. (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, used by Bruckner as a structural model, lasts only an hour.)
Paradoxically, in Bruckner, sometimes a conductor takes a slightly slower tempo which actually makes the music feel lighter and move more quickly — it’s a mind trick, for sure, where space and time dissolve into each other. Part of this is the composer’s ability to keep the listener in perpetual suspension, with one commentator calling the Eighth Symphony “a great study in long-range harmonic evasion.”
Across the opening movement, the ASO seemed to gain in cohesion and finesse. The hulking brass choirs, the shimmering and taut string tone, the lush, verdant woodwinds — Runnicles’ comprehensive reading allowed the players freedom to play out within these giant, sometimes crudely carved, blocks of sound. The Scherzo second movement repeats a five-note figure over and over, an ostinato that scorches into your memory. Here it was beautifully controlled, with blaring brass waves topped by wispy whitecaps from the woodwinds. It all felt so alive.
We’ve already been through a lot by the time the painful Adagio arrived — caged, battered and a little raw. So when the cellos take us down, down, down into some unexplored emotional abyss, everyone is helpless to resist. Rather than fatigued, they came out of the Adagio a better, tighter and more dedicated ensemble than when they started the evening, making the finale’s triumphant resolution all the more organic and authentic.
Under Runnicles, we hear what a fine orchestra the ASO can be -- even in the sort of repertoire they don’t visit often enough. Anticipation is already brimming for next week’s intense and sublime “A German Requiem.”
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