Magnificent Sibelius from Blomstedt

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Mozart, Sibelius: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), Emanuel Ax (piano), Tonhalle Zurich (JR)

Mozart : Piano Concerto No. 27
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2

Strangely and sadly, Sibelius is not often heard in central Europe, perhaps never properly accepted. Quite the contrary of course in Scandinavia and in Britain and America where he is rightly considered and treasured as one of the most significant composers of the last turn of the century. The programme note pondered the reason for this and wondered whether critics in the late 1930s (amongst them Theodor Adorno) damaged Sibelius’ reputation by not considering him modern enough, no atonality or twelve tone music being evident. Adorno felt there were more holes in Sibelius’ symphonies than lakes in Finland. Maybe central Europe just did not have a champion such as Colin Davis around at the right time. Anyhow the Tonhalle (who did play this symphony under Andris Nelsons in 2008) wanted to redress the balance and enticed one of their favourite venerable conductors, the 85 year old Swedish Herbert Blomstedt, back to the podium for the occasion.

First off, however, and probably in an endeavour (which failed on the night I attended) to fill the hall, yet another Mozart piano concerto with yet another Big Name pianist, this time No. 27 and Emanuel Ax. Ax, to go with his name, is a big bear of a man and hence the surprise when he plays as delicately as Maria Joao Pires, who played the work here last season. No question of course about Ax’ virtuosity; the piece is low-key (though filled with harmonic and emotional subtleties) and has no great difficulties for top rank pianists. Blomstedt accentuated the opening beautifully and Ax played nimbly and playfully in the opening movement. The Larghetto charmed and the final Allegro was jaunty enough. I yawned and could not wait for the second half.

From the opening bars of the Sibelius one sensed Blomstedt’s supreme command of the shaping of this magnificent and many-faceted work. The waves of sound and granite blocks thrilled – Sibelius wrote in an attack on his critics “My music has nothing at all of the circus. What I offer, is pure, clear, cold water”. Blomstedt’s heart and soul were evident in this music and this performance and the Tonhalle responded with gusto and finesse in equal measure.

The build up of tension and fluid sense of rhythm culminating in a stirring and shattering climax in the final pages was magical and uplifting. Iniquitous as it always is to pick out principals, but special praise to the principal trumpeter Philippe Litzler, who stood out, and ever hard-working tuba player Simon Styles.

Blomstedt still looks amazingly sprightly at 85, ironically on the very night that Simon Rattle, now aged a mere 58, announced his stepping down from the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018. Blomstedt needed neither chair nor score nor help getting on and off the stage or podium; his conducting still clear, full of drive and buoyancy. Let’s hope the Tonhalle invite him back for more Sibelius next season.

John Rhodes