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Blomstedt Brings Bruckner to the NSO

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing his sympathetic Bruckner-ears’ expertise to ionarts with this review of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Available from Amazon:
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Giulini / WPh
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Bruno Walter / Columbia SO
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Daniel Barenboim / Berlin Philharmonic
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Eugen Jochum / BRSO
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Sergiu Celibidache / M.Phil
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Günter Wand / Stuttgart RSO

’s recording of choice]

Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Günter Wand / BPh

’s recording of choice]
Thursday night (3/19/09), the venerable but still remarkably spry 82-year-old Herbert Blomstedt led the National Symphony Orchestra with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 (K.595 in B-flat) the substantial amuse-gueule before Bruckner’s 9th Symphony.

Blomstedt took a mellow, unhurried, but still alert approach to the Mozart. At first, his young partner, 28-year-old pianist Jonathan Biss, seemed to rush rather than relish his part. This abated by the end of the first movement and a new level of comfort showed itself in the Larghetto, without, albeit, revealing any notable poetic insights. In the last movement, Allegro, Biss showed some real character and esprit. Clearly, he was now relaxed enough to begin exploring, with his ample talent, the expressive possibilities Mozart offered. By far his best movement, he began relishing the interplay with the orchestra and displaying the sense of play essential to Mozart. Now that Biss has broken the ice, my guess is that his next two performances (today and tomorrow) will be up to the par of the last movement tonight, which would make them rather special.

This was the second Bruckner 9th (always only the first three extant movements, omitting the unfinished fourth as remains predominant practice) that I have heard in less than three weeks. On March 3rd, I heard Zubin Mehta direct the Vienna Philharmonic in Los Angeles in a disappointing performance that seemed to use the 9th as a virtuoso display piece for the orchestra, rather than as Bruckner’s final statement on the cosmos. The NSO was not in a position to do that, nor did Herbert Blomstedt seem to be disposed to want to. His intentions were more serious. And, truth be told, the NSO was not exactly in its métier. It has not performed this symphony in 20 years. [The last—and only?—time we covered the NSO in Bruckner was a little less than four years ago, when Roger Norrington inflicted the original version of the Fourth without vibrato upon us. jfl] At times, it sounded as if it were speaking a second language that it had not quite mastered; there was a momentary discombobulation in one of the many gear shifts in the first movement, and occasional odd sound balances occurred.

Other Resources:

Anne Midgette, Bruckner Blossoms Under Blomstedt and NSO (Washington Post, March 20)

Inside the NSO: A Rehearsal of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 (RealPlayer video)
Despite the lack of a Bruckner tradition, however, the NSO was able to achieve, under Blomstedt’s guidance, some notable things. Blomstedt took an approach that was not exactly tranquil, but not as highly charged as one might wish, especially if one is habituated to Furtwangler’s volcanic approach. At whatever stride, Blomstedt kept the one essential thing in Bruckner without which all else is lost: concentration. This allowed him to bring out a good deal of detail without ever breaking the line. Without sounding particularly idiomatic, the NSO stayed with him, excelled in the delicate, lyrical moments, and pulled off the major climaxes. Things gelled by the third movement to the point that the NSO was speaking fluent Bruckner (the strings were glorious), and the expressiveness of the music took over. Together, Blomstedt and the NSO beautifully built the last movement. They approached and even at moments achieved the visionary. The audience knew it and sat still at the end, uncertain as to when or if to applaud. Neither perfect nor great, I still prefer this Bruckner-approach to what I heard on the West Coast and the huzzahs with which it was greeted.

Aesthetic postscripts: The VPO has better tailors than the NSO and looks stunning in white tie. Compared to the VPO, which had only four female participants, the NSO looks like a gynecocracy. I only mention this because it struck me, as I was once struck with the nearly overwhelming green of Virginia after coming back from three months in the desert in the Middle East. While I expected lax sartorial standards in the Disney Concert Hall, which invites by its name and design perpetual adolescence, I saw elderly adults in blue jeans at the Kennedy Center Bruckner concert here. Unless this is part of a new WPA program for the Great Recession, that really seems inexcusable. RRR

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (March 20 and 21, 8 pm). Pianist Jonathan Biss will give a solo recital in the area next month, playing music by Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and Kurtág at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (April 5, 7:30 pm). The next performances by the NSO will be the Holy Week concerts (April 9 to 11), with Kurt Masur conducting the Brahms German Requiem, featuring Heidi Grant Murphy and one of the final performances of the soon-to-be-defunct Master Chorale of Washington.