This week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program, under music director Andris Nelsons, is a study in light and dark. Both pieces on the bill, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, pass from minor key to major in the course of their journey. Thursday, that journey was a challenging one.
Mozart premiered his Piano Concerto No. 20 in 1785, in close proximity to his operas “The Marriage of Figaro” (1786) and “Don Giovanni” (1787), and you can sense their drama in the stealthy opening measures of the Allegro. This is one of just two Mozart piano concertos in a minor key, and undoubtedly the most turbulent, but Nelsons’s soloist, Mitsuko Uchida, didn’t play it that way. Uchida is one of the most renowned Mozart pianists living; she has a feel for the architecture of his question-and-answer phrases, and her passagework is inhumanly even.
Thursday, however, her tone was less than gratifying: pingy at the top and thumpy at the bottom. And there wasn’t much inflection in her touch or weight in her phrasing. Leading a reduced ensemble of 40, Nelsons contributed a powerful beginning, full of mystery if not menace, and throughout he calibrated dynamic levels and molded phrasing with the care we’ve come to expect. All the same, the opening Allegro was static, and Uchida molded and calibrated little until the cadenza, where she became a different pianist: now ferocious, now thoughtful, now tender. Her Romanze was more bittersweet and less brusque than the one on her 2010 Decca recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, but the stormy G-minor section remained tranquil. In the Rondo finale, she again bloomed in the cadenza. But this was pristine, small-scaled Mozart, short on imagination as well as humor.
The BSO has had a modest relationship with Bruckner; its two previous music directors, Seiji Ozawa and James Levine, were not advocates, and you can count the number of BSO Bruckner recordings on the fingers of one hand. Among them, however, is one of the best Sixth Symphonies I know, William Steinberg’s for RCA in 1970. The jacket of the original LP release shows Bruckner’s score suspended in the cosmos, with an angel turning the pages. There’s certainly something unearthly about this symphony: The violins’ cheeping two-followed-by-three, the famous “Bruckner rhythm,” sounds like a signal from outer space, and the tonality keeps bypassing our familiar modern minor and major keys and shifting into the medieval Phrygian mode.
Nelsons, just the fourth conductor to lead the BSO in the Sixth, got so much about it right Thursday. He maintained the rhythmic tension between twos and threes, and he put enough air around Bruckner’s thematic blocks that they didn’t all run together. Everything about the performance was carefully measured, and yet the result was earnest to a fault. Where it needed to be intimate, it was; where it needed to be loud, it was too loud, and brash to boot, with the brass not having their best night. Overall Nelsons’s reading was slow — similar in its timings to Heinz Bongartz’s legendary 1964 recording with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, but heavy-footed where Bongartz is light. The Adagio offered transcendent shades of gray instead of Bruckner’s vivid colors; the Scherzo had zip, but the shape of the Finale — always a difficult proposition — was hard to grasp. The arc of a Bruckner symphony has been likened to T.S. Eliot’s idea of arriving back where you started and knowing the place for the first time. This performance, though a good one, was still getting there.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats April 14-15). Tickets $31-$145. 888-266-1200, www.bso.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.