A Rewarding Rapport between the Philharmonia and Herbert Blomstedt

12/04/2019

Beethoven and Berlioz: Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 11.4.2019. (AS)

Herbert Blomsted (c) Martin Lengemann.

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F Op.68, Pastoral
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique Op.14

How do you like your Pastoral? Should it be warm and affectionate, with easy-going tempi? Or should it be bright-eyed and classically orientated, with events sharply observed, and no lingering over this or that detail? Generally, Herbert Blomstedt took the latter, perhaps more ‘modern’ approach to the score. The tempo for the opening movement was quite brisk (the exposition repeat taken), but there was no hint of anything glossed over or rushed, and time was found for naturally expressive pulse undulations at points where the music seemed to need it.

Andante molto mosso is the indication for the second movement, suggesting that the Andante tempo should be kept moving. This was certainly the case in Blomstedt’s performance, but here the playing, though-first class in execution, seemed to be a little featureless, with the 12/4 time seeming to be more like 3/4, conducted rather relentlessly one in a bar. But what the programme note rather charmingly described as the ‘avian flourish’ of birdsong at the end of the movement was well-characterised. A certain quality of rhythmic routine also pervaded the third-movement depiction of a ‘merry assembly of country folk’, and the storm that followed was sharply executed but not very dramatic in effect.  Fortunately, Blomstedt found more warmth and expression to match the mood of calm thanksgiving that dominates the last movement. This was beautifully played, and the end of the work seemed like a gentle sigh of satisfaction.

Blomstedt shaped the rather hesitant opening the Symphonie fantastique cleanly and clearly, and in a highly expressive fashion, and this somehow gave notice that the audience was about to experience something quite special. So it proved to be. In that first movement, for all its abrupt changes of mood – all of them very faithfully and vividly observed – the ebb and flow of the music was perfectly judged, and an ideal balance was struck between its classical and romantic elements. Nothing was allowed to become overblown or exaggerated, yet there was passion and urgency in abundance. Berlioz’s second-movement depiction of a ballroom, with a vision of swirling figures perceived through a distorting lens of desire and passion on the part of the artist (the composer himself, as we know), possessed just the right sense of warmth tinged with bizarre, uncontrolled emotion. In the ‘Scene in the fields’ a convincing pastoral atmosphere was initially conveyed through Tom Blomfield’s solo oboe calls being played offstage and answered from within the orchestra by Jill Crowther’s cor anglais; and as the open-air tranquility of the music changed to a feeling of agitated loneliness and despair so did Blomstedt increase the intensity of his conducting: it was powerfully majestic and compelling.

A fierce, uncompromisingly dark and searing ‘March to the Scaffold’ was then executed (as it were) with precision, pounding drums and rasping lower brass instruments. In the last movement’s journey through a depiction of the composer’s hallucinatory experiences, Blomstedt was a thrilling leader, though all he did was to let the sheer power of the music manifest itself without embellishment. The tumultuous ending of the work exploded with energy.

Herbert Blomstedt will be 92 years old in July. He conducted the whole programme in a comfortable standing position and from memory. The psychic energy he expends is clearly still formidable, even if his baton-less gestures are economical. For a long time he was a very infrequent visitor to the UK, but I understand that he has now established a very good rapport with the Philharmonia, which plays wonderfully well for him. I hope that the relationship will continue long into the future.

Alan Sanders

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