Big-Boned, Muscled-Up Bruckner from Jaap van Zweden

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Bruckner: Carey Bell (clarinet), San Francisco Symphony / Jaap van Zweden (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.1.2019. (HS)

Mozart — Clarinet Concerto in A major K622
Bruckner — Symphony No.5 in B-flat major WAB 105

For the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, San Francisco Symphony audiences over the years have had a steady diet of conductor Herbert Blomstedt, the orchestra’s laureate since his retirement as music director in 1995. The Swedish-American conductor favored smooth transitions and a gentle underlying sense of urgency that brought out Bruckner’s mysticism.

Jaap van Zweden, in his first appearance as a guest conductor here since 2014, brought a more muscular, rough-hewn, emphatic style to the composer’s Fifth Symphony. The newly installed New York Philharmonic conductor led a reading impressive for its vigor and energy.

The big gestures — and Bruckner relishes triumphal climaxes — gleamed with the sheen of sleek brass. And van Zweden made splendid use of the expanded array of trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba. He whipped up a seething storm from the rest of the orchestra to prepare their stentorian entrances. It made quite an impact.

In the tentative opening pages — from halting skeins of string pizzicatos to sustained oboe and flute notes and a stab at a counter-melody that dissolves quickly — the conductor delivered the requisite feeling of unsettled messages looking for a resolution. From these feints at a range of different orchestral effects to a final resolution — within a movement or leading to the final pages — van Zweden shifted from one big gesture to another without much care for smoothing transitions. Over a stream of sound, he rolled the big boulders and dragged them all into place by sheer will.

For their part, the orchestra provided impressive sound, articulating with clarity. There was never a time when things drifted. Confident in the driver’s seat, the conductor made firm decisions, even when shifting tempos sometimes fit uncomfortably.

When the ensemble arrived at one of Bruckner’s long-breathed, hymn-like passages, or rich carpets of strings, van Zweden’s powerful climaxes could raise the hairs on the back of a listener’s head. After all the blind alleys at the opening, the first movement’s final pages built to a satisfying conclusion. The heartfelt adagio moved with purpose with principal oboist Eugene Izotov’s languorous solo. The scherzo danced with unexpected lightness, a nice contrast to the movement that followed. And once that finale settled into motion, van Zweden relished its long strides of steady tempo, before a fugue gained momentum into a glorious restatement of the hymn.

The opener, Mozart’s amiable Clarinet Concerto, found van Zweden fashioning careful details of subtle dynamics and lithe rhythms in rather deliberate tempos. The results showed off the lyricism of the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Carey Bell, who played with ravishing tone and admirable clarity. If he occasionally rushed some of Mozart’s flourishes in the outer movements, the central adagio glowed with stately elegance.

Harvey Steiman

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