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An old hand shines anew in Bruckner

His program with the NSO on Thursday night — which repeats Friday morning and Saturday night — was old school as well: Mozart and Bruckner, staple foods of the Central European repertoire. It’s a diet the NSO long lived largely without, since neither composer was in the wheelhouse of Leonard Slatkin, the American music director who led the orchestra for 15 years. It took Christoph Eschenbach, the German who eventually replaced him, to bring these works back; indeed, he was, until recently, the last conductor to lead Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with this orchestra in 2013 and 2012, respectively. But it took Janowski to make the Bruckner shine.

I’ve long been partial to Janowski, whose last American post was as part of a short-lived experiment with a triumvirate of music directors at the Pittsburgh Symphony, now almost forgotten. Now 80, he has occupied a number of respectable music directorships across the continent, made some significant recordings (including Weber’s “Euryanthe” with the late soprano Jessye Norman) and appeared with the NSO on several occasions. But he’s one of those unflashy and elderly conductors whom it’s easy to underrate.

True, the Mozart did not augur especially well. The soloist was German violinist Arabella Steinbacher, a distinctive and lyrical player who made her debut with this orchestra under Janowski in 2013, but who, then as now, seemed a little off. It’s not Mozart’s most popular concerto, and Steinbacher seemed less interested in it per se than she did in the involved cadenzas, which offered a freer and more intriguing version of herself so that the score sounded paler when the orchestra came in after she had finished. And Janowski, and the players, were a touch heavy-handed.

For me, the Bruckner was the draw on the program; the composer’s most lyrical and ravishing symphony is a gateway drug, I said to a friend, to an oeuvre that can seem uncompromising. It wasn’t a bit uncompromising, though, in Janowski’s hands. In contrast to Eschenbach, who was always visibly involved with the spiritual side of things, running to impassioned rollings of his head, Janowski looked like a file clerk; but the simple, even motions of his arms elicited powerful sounds from the orchestra, gently building crescendos tightening the screws of intensity, leading to crashing climaxes without him breaking into a sweat. He also offered a fluidity that was unlike the light fleetness of Gianandrea Noseda, the NSO’s music director: Janowski’s playing felt warm and centered but moved along at a strong pace, a river to Noseda’s currents of air. Even the scherzo, which can be craggy, had a wonderful malleable quality. It was a deep and engaging performance that didn’t make much of itself, offered by another elderly conductor who showed his experience and authority while making it look easy; and the orchestra played quite well for him. When it was done, the audience sat silent for a minute as if taking stock of what had just happened, then added some whoops to the applause.

The program repeats 11:30 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.

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