For David Robertson’s penultimate week as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, he chose a program with just two works that proved to be worlds apart but still fit together. On Friday morning at Powell Symphony Hall, he and the orchestra took the audience on quite a journey, both of musical styles and from moods of grim despair to shining hope.
The first piece was by the German composer Jörg Widmann; his 2007 Violin Concerto was composed for and performed by the astounding Christian Tetzlaff. With a running time of just under 30 minutes, it demands immense technique and physical stamina.
The concerto begins with a heartbreaking violin solo, then adds the rest of the strings, winds and percussion. Composed in one long movement, it owes a lot to the music of Alban Berg in its dissonance and overall feel; there are fragmentary moments of beauty along the way, but it’s a passage through a mostly painful world.
The only time the violinist’s bow paused was in a moment of musical agony when he seemed to give up, slumped over like a marionette whose strings have gone slack, before snapping back and returning to a state of frenzy.
All concerned rose to the considerable technical challenges of this searing work. It wasn’t an easy listen, but it was gripping and memorable.
The second half provided a welcome study in contrasts. Anton Bruckner’s much-revised Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, “Romantic,” is often called a “cathedral in sound.” That’s an apt phrase; in four long movements, it’s an architectural construct of sorts, a massive, beautiful work that envelopes the listener.
Robertson led it well, choosing apt tempos and shaping the mighty arches and buttresses of Bruckner’s design. At times, you could almost hear the sun shining through stained glass windows.
The orchestra shone as well, in a fine reading that found everyone in good voice, from the gentlest moments to the biggest. The principal wind players all deserved their solo bows, but the first among equals was indisputably principal horn Roger Kaza, who began with flawless phrasing to open the work and contributed mightily throughout.