Edinburgh International Festival – Rotterdam Philharmonic/Blomstedt

Symphony No.2 (The Four Temperaments)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 August, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It’s not every orchestra that foot-stamps its approval of a conductor – but that’s just how the members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic showed their appreciation of Herbert Blomstedt at the end of this terrific concert, the second of two Edinburgh appearances.

Blomstedt, an American-born Swedish citizen, is probably most associated with the Austro-German classics and also regarded in some quarters as what the Germans call a Kapellmeister, a term of distinction there if used derogatorily elsewhere. Blomstedt’s (just-ended) tenure of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra brought this civilised musician to an honoured musical institution. Before that Blomstedt was Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. He is more cosmopolitan, and conducts a wider repertoire than tends to be suggested, as his long association with the music of Carl Nielsen evinces. Indeed, Blomstedt has recorded the six symphonies twice, and in very recommendable versions.

Nielsen’s Second Symphony and the Seventh of Beethoven made an apt coupling, related around the human condition, Nielsen expressing different human emotions and Beethoven raising above his fraught circumstances in joyous affirmation.

Blomstedt treated both works as equals. He conducted them from memory, his clear gestures were only for the musicians, and his use of antiphonal violins allowed the acute listener to appreciate how both composers exploited this arrangement. If there was one miscalculation in the Nielsen, it was that the brass was a little too dominant – not so much too loud as too fulsome in tone, albeit woodwinds and strings were not covered. Otherwise, Blomstedt led an immaculately detailed account that was scrupulously aware of Nielsen’s structure and his soul. The first movement exploded with ‘choleric’ impulse and Blomstedt’s judgement was such that the heartfelt second subject didn’t need special pleading, no more than fortissimos needed to be climactically loud until really necessary: wise, long-viewed conducting.

The idyllic nature of the ‘phlegmatic’ second movement was most beautifully done, the tender melody and ‘lapping water’ rhythm exquisitely co-joined, and Blomstedt ensured that the ‘melancholic’ Andante had requisite intensity. The ‘sanguine’ finale was non-rushed to advantage, and the slow reminiscences towards the end enjoyed string-playing of subtle variegation and expressive turning before the exuberant final bars, which found Blomstedt swinging his hips in pleasurable accord to Nielsen’s elation.

Given Blomstedt’s track-record in Nielsen, such an authoritative account was anticipated and more than delivered. The programme’s biographies made no suggestion as to ‘where at’ the relationship between Blomstedt and the Philharmonic is; he holds no official position with the orchestra, and one can only speculate how often he has guest-conducted in Rotterdam. What was striking was the easeful and confident manner with which the musicians played for him; complete enjoyment and trust was radiated. For Blomstedt’s part, although 2007 brings his 80th birthday, one can only report that he appears to be in peak intellectual and physical condition and absolutely loving the music that he conducts with such intelligence.

If one was expecting a gloriously old-fashioned account of Beethoven 7, this was only part of what actually happened. It certainly was, until the finale, a time-taken interpretation, especially moderate in the first movement, the Poco sostenuto introduction given with breadth and incision, and the way that Blomstedt dovetailed to the lilting rhythms of the Vivace was perfection. For all his deliberation, Blomstedt ensured that rhythms were sprung and accents had bite; here (pace Wagner) the music really did dance and ebbed and flowed to and through nodal points with inevitability.

Writing as someone who is utterly sick and tired of hearing Beethoven’s symphonies played as fast and as brazenly as possible, the opportunity to hear the Seventh realised so observantly and perceptively was special. The second movement Allegretto is now played ‘authentically’ as a quick march; with Blomstedt there was momentum and gravitas. The scherzo, light and luminous, may have been under the Presto marking, but Blomstedt chose his speed to accommodate the trio, which arrived at just the right tempo and was indivisible from its surrounds. The finale, madly fast (relatively speaking), avoided crudeness and embraced elation, Blomstedt deeming Beethoven’s scoring for two horns to be sufficient. This transfixing rendition, sometimes unkempt, had one redefining the music’s possibilities. All repeats were observed.

But that’s not the end of the story. What was surprising was the utterly distinctive soundworld that Blomstedt created. From the ‘normal’ tones heard in the Nielsen, Blomstedt then persuaded the Rotterdam Philharmonic to a wholly different response for Beethoven. If Blomstedt takes a sceptical view of Beethoven’s metronome markings (rightly so), then he has clearly thought deeply about the right sort of sound. The timpanist used very hard sticks to ensure that even the quietest note was pin-point clear (and the loudest had invigorating impact without eclipsing the rest of the orchestra). The characterful woodwinds were liberated in their projection, and even given a certain freedom – yet, it must be said, that some entries were not only a little too impromptu but also sharp: did Blomstedt encourage being ‘above the note’ for greater brilliance?

As for the strings (slightly reduced in numbers and grounded on six, left-positioned, double basses), over warm middle and bass frequencies, Blomstedt produced ‘zinging’, decorative non-vibrato violin timbres: a fresh sound not to be confused with the austere antique pallor of ‘period’ performance. This intriguing and compelling performance concluded a concert that was solely about music and penetrating musicianship.

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