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Ionarts at Large: Blomstedt and Pires in San Francisco

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from Davies Hall in San Francisco.

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Symphonies 1-9, Cologne RSO, G. Wand

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Symphonies, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, H. Blomstedt
Last Thursday, February 25, 2016, I joined a largely geriatric crowd (meant descriptively, not critically, as I myself head toward 70) for a matinee performance of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. For some reason, if only from habit, I think of concerts as evening events. However, I was more than willing to turn out on an early afternoon to hear the Symphony’s conductor laureate Herbert Blomstedt, music director from 1985 to 1995, conduct a program of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires, and Bruckner’s Third Symphony. I last had the opportunity of hearing Maestro Blomstedt in 2009, when he conducted the Bruckner Ninth Symphony with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. He was then 82. Today, at 88, his artistry is undiminished.

I think of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto as a largely extroverted affair, filled with joie de vivre. However, anyone who came expecting to be jolted by Beethoven’s electricity might have been disappointed by the relatively low voltage level of orchestral energy. Blomstedt chose, rather, a warm, reflective, mellow approach. It was particularly effective in poetic stretches, but lacked an element of excitement. It served, however, as a perfectly fine setting for the sublime artistry of Maria João Pires, who, remarkably, was making her debut with the San Francisco Symphony. She played with a full range of expression in a way that made the most of every finely articulated note. The first movement cadenza was particularly remarkable. Only a deeply experienced, fully mature artist could play with the level of confidence and nuance she exhibited. If I tried to put it in a nutshell, I would say it was like listening to a female Wilhelm Kempff. In all, the performance perspective of soloist, conductor, and orchestra was toward inwardness, rather than outwardness. It showed a perhaps slightly unexpected side of this relatively youthful Beethoven.

Blomstedt chose the early 1873 Nowak edition of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3. In fact, it was Blomstedt who premiered this version of the Bruckner Third in the United States in 1998. As awkward as parts of it may be, it is well to keep in mind the remark of the famous Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who said of the Third Symphony: “This is the first manifestation of great, spacious, broad-plane thinking – incredibly extended – representing the essence of his later symphonic writing.” That is exactly right. In the Third, one can hear Bruckner’s greatness coming right around the corner. And in what does that greatness consist? The excellent Playbill program notes by Michael Steinberg quote Wilhelm Furtwängler to the effect that, “Bruckner is one of those geniuses who have appeared but seldom in the course of European history, whose destiny it was to render the transcendent real and to attract, even to compel, the element of the divine into our human world.” That level of greatness is more promised than realized in the Third, but there is enough of it there to reward attention.

Other Reviews:

Georgia Rowe, Blomstedt and Bruckner prove a winning combination on San Francisco's Davies Hall stage (San Jose Mercury News, February 26)

Joshua Kosman, Blomstedt makes a halting case for Bruckner (San Francisco Chronicle, February 26)
For the most part, Blomstedt did not aim at exaltation, and he did not make the big moments in the first movement as big as they could have been. If one missed the majestic utterances achieved by a conductor like Günter Wand, one was compensated by the sheer beauty which Blomstedt elicited with his steady, unbroken concentration and the extraordinarily fine playing by the SFS, which sounded as if to the Bruckner manner born. While not completely swept up in the early movements of the symphony, I nonetheless found myself repeatedly saying, “I didn’t realize this part was that beautiful.” Blomstedt’s approach was particularly effective in deftly revealing inner voices. My few reservations were blown away by the vivacity, vigor, and élan with which the third and fourth movements were done. The finale demonstrated that Blomstedt had only been keeping his powder dry in the fortissimo passages of the first movement, which made the closing allegro all the more exciting.

1 comment:

jfl said...

"Never judge a Blomstedt performance before the fourth movement", is my mantra. He's a very subtle conductor and makes you miss the trees for the forest. But it really comes together over all and in reflecting, one is almost surprised at how good and right it felt.