Günther Herbig led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in works by Mozart and Bruckner. (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra went back to basics on Saturday. After the previous weekend’s program featuring revolutionary Stravinsky and the world music stylings of Osvaldo Golijov, the orchestra turned to two of the cornerstones of the Austro-Germanic repertory at Strathmore: Mozart and Bruckner.

The basics are not easy, not least the sprawling grandiosity and lofty ramblings of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. The challenge of taming this longest (at 80 minutes) of Bruckner’s symphonies was left to veteran guest conductor Günther Herbig. The German-born eminence grise led a magisterial performance reflecting an intimate knowledge of the score and a vitality undimmed by age.

Conducting a hybrid of the Haas and Nowak editions from memory, Herbig brought out the work’s large-scale drama, masterfully sculpting phrases and dictating the ebb and flow of tension. He did not shy away from the score’s rough-hewn transitions, instead emphasizing its abrupt shifts in mood through tempo and dynamic contrasts. Yet Herbig’s urgency and attention to craggy detail never came at the cost of overall architecture. He even sustained tension in the visionary Adagio, its climax all the more powerful for Herbig’s refusal to linger before reaching the heavenly summit. Only in the episodic-sounding finale did energy and focus start to wane before the orchestra regathered itself for the majestic coda.

If Herbig’s command of the score was masterly, the orchestra’s execution, at times, was less exalted. The BSO’s strings were eloquent, lithe and ethereal, but the brass were often coarse and overpowering. But when called upon to blaze triumphantly, they delivered with unstinting authority.

The concert opened with an elegantly understated account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 from Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein. The playing was pretty and well mannered, but Goldstein’s restraint left Mozart’s richly expressive lines sounding a little meandering. With the monumental Bruckner yet to come, Mozart, for once, felt superfluous.

Chin is a freelance writer.