Zander’s lead lets Bruckner symphony bloom

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2010

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Time did not fly when the Boston Philharmonic and conductor Benjamin Zander performed Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony on Saturday, which is as it should be. The symphony celebrates its substantial temporal demands; every moment of its 80-plus minutes is given weight and presence. That’s not an aesthetic that naturally suits the modern era, which may be why Zander, who last programmed the symphony in 2005, was compelled to return to it: The Eighth needs evangelizing, and Zander is a natural evangelist.

In some ways, it’s an attraction of opposites: Zander tends to glory in the sudden, the immediate, visceral blooms of sound, while Bruckner requires a certain slow-unfolding control. In the first movement, Zander’s strategy was on display: Give in to the opportunities for explosive sound, but keep a tight reign on the tempo. The beat was insistently steady, holding back when the music itched to jump ahead; where the pace did speed up or slow down, the process seemed preordained, algorithmic, like a chess combination. It gave tension and stature to set up the rest, while still showcasing the prodigious ensemble — thick beams of string sound, a deep, warm cushion of Wagner-tuba-enhanced brass, a lean weave of woodwinds.

The scherzo was determined business, the music taking on a stony, heavy-footed mass. But the tread was balanced by a lovely, mysterious trio, culminating in a shimmering wall of horn sound, both inviting and opaque. The expansive adagio introduced more flexibility, the push and pull becoming more impulsive, making the music into a nobly wandering line.

It arrived at the last movement, an unorthodox interpretation of the symphonic finale, a complex dialectic between extreme textural shifts, the themes developed into almost self-contained character pieces, and the chorale’s more speculative theology.

At the climax— an homage-to-Beethoven transition from C-minor to major — Bruckner works one last bit of idiosyncratic magic: The move comes, seemingly, just a shade too soon, ending before one can fully grasp it.

One could sell the ending, bringing it more in line with standard symphonic discourse. But this performance let it be, leaving the listener just a little bit hanging. It might have been Bruckner’s way of ensuring that his symphony’s heft would linger on past its close, a hint of restless profundity to carry back into the everyday. Zander and the Philharmonic did Bruckner’s Eighth justice both monumental and enigmatic.

Matthew Guerreri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@

BOSTON PHILHARMONIC Benjamin Zander, conductor

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday