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Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 5 )
Anton Bruckner Cycle • Bruckner VIII

Vienna Philharmonic • Herbert Blomstedt

Quietly Fabulous

Picture of Herbert Blomstedt (detail) courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli

The Eighth Symphony of Anton Bruckner’s, the last he finished, his longest (bar the original version of the Third), the only one with harps… does tower above the others in a grand and subtle way. It is his greatest ‘cathedral of sound’ that Bruckner built among his symphonies, even if it need not display any whiff of incense… being in its way as earthly and secular as all his symphonies.

There are many ways of constructing this cathedral to great success—from Pierre Boulez’ (iron fisted, DG) to Günter Wand (autumnal magnificience, RCA), and just as many ways to bring it down. The quietly fabulous Herbert Blomstedt*, filling in for Riccardo Chailly, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the Grosses Festspielhaus on July 26th, knows how to construct the long lines of Bruckner in his own, unfussy, slightly prosaic way. One expects unhurried, unspectacular glory… even after the shaky performance of the Bruckner Fourth from a few days earlier.

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.8
H.Blomstedt / Gewandhaus O. Leipzig
Querstand SACD
(Also: the WPh played the Eighth plenty of times, this season.) After hearing him in Bruckner with the BRSO, I made it a resolution “never [to] judge a Blomstedt (Bruckner) performance before you've heard all four movements.” It helps and that’s exactly what happened. Even if it starts out sounding a little ordinary, in his (seeming lack of) interpretation—and suddenly you look around yourself, metaphorically or actually, to realize that his has been a secretly astounding performance all along.

Perhaps the only deviation from my expectations, built the above maxim, was that here, as Herbert Blomstedt brought that feeling of excellence to the table right from the get-go. Notably the violins and brass were much, much improved from the Bruckner Fourth performance under Barenboim, with the first violins just about being the pride of the performance: broadly shimmering and well-coordinated. The brass, with horns and Wagner tubas, appeared to be on a regal mission of redemption, too. It was, all in all, a good day’s work… no, wait, not work.

Blomstedt, as a Seventh-day Adventist, keeps Sabbath, which means no secular work on Saturday. There are clauses, however, for charitable work and—apparently, perhaps—duty. Concerts are duty or work in the service of culture… and certainly Bruckner might be concocted to be sacred labor… in any case: This first of two performances was a fine, uplifting concert, satisfying, not amazing.

* Blomstedt made his conducting-debut with the WPh only in 2011!

See also: A Survey of Bruckner Cycles