Unanswered questions

Ben Zander and the BPO, Sanders Theatre, November 18, 2007
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  November 19, 2007
sanderinside
Ben Zander

Inscrutable, indelible, sunk deep in the cellos and basses, the playing of the opening eight measures of Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic at Sanders Theatre on Sunday set the stage for the performance of that piece and the one that followed, Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. The phrase was quick, concise, and unpretentious, announcing that Zander would present rather than plumb the mysteries of Schubert’s two-movement (never finished — or was it?) work. That might have seemed a modest ambition, but it grew in stature, inviting you to contemplate Schubert’s unresolved juxtapositions while declining to turn the Allegro moderato first movement’s famous second theme (“This is . . . the symphony . . . that Schubert wrote and never finished”) into romantic muzak. With its martial trumpets, the development of that movement even dropped hints of hysteria, looking back to the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and ahead to the dissolution of the Adagio of his Ninth. No quarter was given; no riddles were solved.

Schubert played like Schubert is rare; Bruckner played like Schubert — uninflated, unfraught — is even rarer. Bruckner’s Fifth is like the Unfinished in its pizzicati, its granite building blocks, its unanswered questions. Here too there were no heroic postures, only cogent phrasing and an apt militancy (war in Heaven?) in the development of the Allegro first movement. The Adagio brought equally apt honking-auto-alarm horns, Bruckner’s intensity approaching neurosis; the descending sevenths that close this movement could have been more painful, but there was still sufficient Bernard-Herrmann-in-Vertigo-mode misery. And if the Scherzo was too loud and the first appearance of the subsequent ländler a little harsh, the Finale, Bruckner’s one-of-a-kind combination of sonata, fugue, and chorale, was a pellucid juggernaut. Zander did not wring the maximum from this symphony, but he did what he does well. Not many living conductors (Abbado? Harnoncourt? Barenboim?) would do better.

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