While I didn’t have the privilege of lounging in a cigar bar with the celebrated conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, I did have the pleasure of attending three concerts of his cycle of Bruckner Symphonies at Carnegie Hall with the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra, which closed on Sunday afternoon—the first complete cycle ever presented there. For an accurate overview, I decided to take in three of the nine symphonies, each of a different type: a sleeper (the Third), a problem child (the Fifth), and a universal favorite (the Seventh).

Attentive listeners like to dialogue about Bruckner these days, chewing on either the problematic aspects of the music itself or on the unpleasant associations with German nationalism that accrued to the music, even during the composer’s own lifetime. But not Daniel Barenboim. This is because Barenboim is a Bruckner Guy, and his devotion has been lifelong. Most of the great conductors have had a preference for either Bruckner or Mahler, Bruckner’s successor as a creator of giant late-Romantic Viennese symphonies: it’s a matter of taste. (Leonard Bernstein was the world’s most devoted Mahler Guy, whereas Eugen Jochum is remembered today as a great Brucknerite and little else. Herbert von Karajan recorded a complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic, but not a Mahler set; the orchestra’s current principal conductor, Simon Rattle, has taken the opposite approach, covering all the Mahler symphonies with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra but recording only a handful of Bruckner’s.) Barenboim came to Mahler eventually, but his feelings are complicated, and he has never recorded a complete Mahler set; in contrast, he has recorded the complete Bruckner symphonies three times, most recently with the Staatskapelle. His first set, with the Chicago Symphony, even included the early “Symphony No. 0,” which only the most ardent Brucknerites will tolerate and which was wisely left out of the Carnegie cycle.

Most conductors today are primarily Mahler people, since Mahler’s febrile sensibility and eclectic musical language have long proved more appealing to modern audiences—the kind of listeners whom Bernstein, in his recordings and innumerable television appearances, first roused in the United States in the nineteen-fifties. You can hear great Bruckner with the Cleveland Orchestra and its Austrian conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, but the only North American conductor today with a distinctive Bruckner approach may be the Canadian maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whose light, almost chamber-style interpretation with the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, on record, comes close to making the Second Symphony actually sound convincing. The Second has a sublime slow movement, but the rest is training-wheels stuff. That’s why I began my Bruckner experience with the Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, which Barenboim led on January 21st.

The Third Symphony has never been among the most popular of the set, but connoisseurs have always treasured it. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt, in particular, made a jubilant recording of it.) Like Haydn’s Forty-Second Symphony or Elliott Carter’s First String Quartet, it is a kind of attenuated graduation piece, a work in which a composer of high promise already in middle age finally gets his stuff together and writes an unquestioned masterpiece, a citadel that no critic can pull down. Bruckner’s invention is exuberant throughout: the finale confidently transforms the tragic mood of the first movement into triumph, and the scherzo is a more optimistic forerunner of the Ninth Symphony’s, by which time the aged composer’s mood had turned to proto-Expressionist darkness. A trace of nervously fresh mastery, however, occurs at the beginning of the slow movement. Although the work earned the nickname “Wagner Symphony” for its brief allusions to themes from Wagner’s operas, the stately Adagio’s first twenty seconds could easily have been by Handel—until a quiet stab of harmonic pain trips off a chain of sequences, dipping downward into the murk of painful memory.

Barenboim’s Berliners responded well to the challenge: thrilling, heart-in-the-throat moments abounded. The Staatskapelle orchestra, which during the Cold War had been the ensemble of East Berlin’s leading opera house, no longer has quite the antique sheen that it did when Barenboim brought it to Carnegie for an electrifying Schumann series, in 2004. The orchestra is now a younger one, though the basic sound, more transparent than that of the Berlin Philharmonic, is still burnished and attractive. (It must also be said, however, that the player-for-player virtuosity of the Philharmonic is still superior.)

With the exception of the mammoth Eighth Symphony, none of the symphonies fills an entire evening, so Barenboim preluded each of the others with a concerto by Mozart; and it was this choice that revealed something essential about Barenboim’s nature, in which emotional intensity seeks intellectual counterpoise. The most important thing to know about a successful Barenboim concert is that, like Rilke’s Swan—the French one, not the German one—it is “a whole moving space.” The ligatures between one work and another are invisible but of tensile strength; Bruckner followed Mozart as in a further chapter of a novel, or as, in a life, a turbulent adulthood presses on after a more innocent youth. Barenboim conducted the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor from the keyboard, and it was magnificent. (In the concerts I attended, he never used a score in Mozart or in Bruckner.) He has little interest in the period-performance movement, which most leading musicians have at least acknowledged in their practice. But for him it hardly hurts. This is proudly post-Wagnerian Mozart, performed by an opera-house ensemble that knows each composer’s music intimately. Not that there was anything heavy or pompous about it: sitting with his back to the audience, Barenboim faced the woodwind section like friends at a formal but friendly dinner party. (Barenboim is both a serious man and a committed bon vivant.) Tempos were moderate, the fasts never too fast, the slows never dragging weight. The blushing beauty of the Larghetto was haunted by Barenboim’s light keyboard touch and empyrean mood: he could have been summoning ghosts. At the doleful close of the first movement, the double basses reached down to their sepulchral low-C extensions, a sound that didn’t exist during Mozart’s lifetime.

It should be said, though, that to follow Mozart with Bruckner does reveal some of the latter man’s weaknesses. Mozart, like Mahler, was simply a better composer. His melodic material is more varied, his expressive range infinitely broader, his orchestration far more piquant and inventive. When Mozart—or Mahler—writes a woodwind melody, its timbral coloring and registral placement are so flawless that it would seem to have been born inside the instrument itself. While Bruckner did have a certain affection for the flute (its shivering excitement in the trio section of the Ninth’s scherzo is one example), most of his wind melodies are generically windy. Oboes pine. Clarinets gurgle in arpeggios, because that’s what clarinets do. The poor bassoons hardly do more than double the cello section.

Sure, Bruckner was trying to imitate the euphonious blend of the pipe organ, of which he was an unchallenged virtuoso. But, in fact, a Bruckner symphony is basically a symphony for strings and brass, the limits of which were laid out in Barenboim’s traversal of the Fifth Symphony, on January 24th. (That performance was preceded by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, K. 297b, for winds and orchestra; the standout soloist was a distinguished guest, the hornist Radovan Vlatković.) The Fifth is difficult to bring off. Its themes are overlong and, for Bruckner, uninspired. The orchestration is plain and dun-colored, without the Third’s excited gleam. Its obsession with contrapuntal display makes the middle registers (the octaves around middle C on the piano) sound clogged and overcrowded. And the finale, with its endless thematic sequences, its crushing shafts of sound, its formal segments following each other like so many railway cars, is just too damn long. In the end, the Fifth is more notable for showing us what Bruckner could do, rather than what he did do. The symphony was useful: Bruckner opened up temporal space and proved his contrapuntal craft, but that musical muscle stretching would serve him better in the glorious Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies. Perhaps it takes an Austrian genius like Harnoncourt to understand the Fifth: his recording takes on a mystical air, with the first-movement Adagio-Allegro transformed into a dream sequence of marches and chorales. Kind of like, you know, Mahler.

Barenboim’s lack of interest in the ur-Austria of lakes, meadows, and mountain peaks didn’t hurt his interpretation of the Seventh Symphony, one of the composer’s supreme masterpieces, which he led on January 27th. (Its prelude was Mozart’s beloved Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major for Violin and Viola, with two of the Staatskapelle’s principal strings as soloists.) From the muscular serenity of its opening bars, the Seventh is a triumph: its proportions are shapely, its themes striving and memorable, its moods convincingly trenchant or painfully vulnerable. As with the Mozart piano concerto, Barenboim’s tempos were moderately paced; with the first and fourth “fast” movements containing so much slow music, the only time Bruckner allows the orchestra to rip is in the “Sehr schnell” (very fast) third-movement Scherzo, and Barenboim didn’t quite take the bait. For the record, he employed the optional cymbal crash at the climax of the slow movement, but not the optional triangle; those yearning for the full Wagnerian effect might have gone home disappointed. But the Seventh brought Barenboim’s great talent as a conductor of Wagner’s operas to the fore. Within those tempos, all was transition, the passing measures continually inflected with subtle and sensual shifts of pacing that went far beyond the composer’s stated instructions—something which Bruckner, the perfect Wagnerite, might well have loved.

Besides their continuum of musical content, the three concerts I witnessed had similarly ample audiences. Bruckner fans showed up in droves, and I’d guess that the composer found many new friends as well. Much of this is due to Barenboim, and to the unapologetic seriousness he brings to these performances, and to his entire musical life. Asked, in an interview, about the composer’s current relevance, he stated, “If music is only a question of entertainment and the pleasure of a pastime, then obviously Bruckner is not the composer for you. If music is an expression of what can be expressed that cannot be expressed in any other way—namely with words—then Bruckner is of extreme importance.” Lenny Bernstein revealed Mahler, in all his neurotic and melodramatic variety, to be the ultimate composer of the Cold War, the roiling emotional volcano underneath the era’s crushing certainties. But in an age in which previously cherished institutions and unquestioned political “norms” are newly in doubt, what Barenboim calls the “ferocious” character of Bruckner’s music, which combines formidable complexity with utter simplicity, may be a compensatory tonic. Perhaps, in America, Bruckner’s time has finally come.