Some people call it the honeymoon phase. Others call it new relationship energy. Many have tried to describe that world-shaking feeling when love is new and bright. That feeling courses through Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, a musical love letter that occupies the first half of this week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program. With Chinese pianist Yuja Wang glittering on the soloist’s bench and BSO music director Andris Nelsons on the podium, the orchestra nearly caught that lightning in a bottle on Thursday evening, Valentine’s Day.
For the concerto was written for Clara Schumann, formerly Wieck, the composer/performer phenom whom the composer had married after a long and sometimes clandestine courtship. (Her father, Schumann’s piano teacher, didn’t approve of him as a match.) Not just a vehicle for virtuosic fireworks, the concerto calls for a keen listening ear and attunement to the larger ensemble. Alongside the BSO, Wang demonstrated all that in spades. Like an elite figure skater or gymnast, the athletic effort she expended was palpable, but if the physical feats took any toll, the audience never saw it.
“How fresh, and what a beautiful, connected whole!” Clara wrote after the 1845 premiere of the full concerto. Those words rang true as Wang glided between the explosive and the tender sans stumbles. When the piano was called to serve as accompanist for the orchestra’s songful melodies, her playing was three-dimensional and finely sculpted. The brief pause after the first movement didn’t just invite applause; It demanded it.
Wang has excelled at minimizing the remove between audience and musician, and ergo, between audience and music. It felt strange, then, that the piece seemed to be on rails. Everything in that “beautiful, connected whole” was in its right place, perhaps too obviously so, and that kept the performance from being all that it could have been. That was not the case in the encore, when Wang seemed to shrink the universe to a tiny point around her arrangement of the Mélodie from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.”
We also know what Clara Schumann thought of Bruckner: not much. Writing to Brahms, she described one of Bruckner’s symphonies as “a horrible piece.” We can’t know how heavily her opinion was influenced by preexisting bias — at the time Bruckner was working in Vienna the musical scene was split into harshly opposed factions clustered around traditions represented by Brahms and Wagner, and as one of Brahms’s dearest confidantes, Clara was obviously in that corner. The Brahms side was stronger, so Bruckner was a common object of derision. (The composer’s rustic sensibilities and off-putting personal habits may have also played into his unpopular-kid-on-the-block status.)
Even now, Bruckner is often described as an acquired taste, like a particularly pungent cheese. Listeners and conductors alike seem either to love or hate him. Nelsons falls firmly on the “love” side, leading a symphony per season since his installment as music director. Thursday’s concert concluded with the composer’s unfinished Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, a work of huge scale that pushes tonality to its limits. The devoutly Catholic Bruckner dedicated it to “the beloved God,” and like a grand cathedral it seems designed to awe beholders with its immensity. The contrast with the first half was striking. There is no filler in Schumann’s concerto; by contrast, some of Bruckner’s ideas feel rough and truncated, with others ruminated over till all flavor fades.
But Nelsons thrives on the massive and difficult (congrats on that Shostakovich Grammy streak!), and he gave his all to shaping a coherent, compelling arc out of the symphony’s rocky raw material, giving it cinematic treatment. The brass could have easily blown our eardrums, but the orchestra was intelligently balanced, and no section overpowered. The palpitating Scherzo plunged into a psychological maelstrom, with the faster Trio anxiously rustling through the storm’s eye. The beginning of the Adagio, the last movement Bruckner completed before his death, recalled the love-drunk plunge of “Tristan and Isolde.” Many more moments of intoxicating chromatic concordance were to be found, along with a dissonance so terrifying it was plain to see why his pupil (mistakenly) struck it from the score. Some people may never want to acquire the taste for Bruckner, but it’s a safe bet that Nelsons might persuade skeptics to try a few bites now and then.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Feb. 14. Repeats Feb. 16. 888-266-1200, www.bso.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.