Even in a Snowstorm, Blomstedt Packs the Hall

United StatesUnited States Nielsen, Beethoven: Cleveland Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 16.2.2013 (MSJ)

Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia espansiva”
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major

A short concert on paper, perhaps, but Herbert Blomstedt and the Cleveland Orchestra made symphonies of Nielsen and Beethoven as dramatic as the lake effect snow commuters were battling outside Severance Hall. It says something for the esteem in which Blomstedt is held here that the weather didn’t keep anyone away; almost every seat was filled.

Blomstedt is a relative latecomer to Cleveland, having only made his debut here in 2006, again with Nielsen (5) and Beethoven (4), but the sparks flew and the orchestra has had him back as often as possible since then. The conductor’s feisty yet patrician manner suits the Clevelanders, who are more strongly classical in style than almost any other modern orchestra.

It is that combination of hard-hitting energy and stern reserve that makes Blomstedt the world’s foremost conductor of the music of Carl Nielsen. At age 85, the maestro is beginning to look a little frail, but the tumultuous first movement of Nielsen’s Sinfonia espansiva belied that notion abruptly, with no punches pulled and building up to the delirious “waltz for giants” at the movement’s central peak.

The slow movement was remarkable for Blomstedt’s uncanny ability to suggest meaning beyond the notes. There was nothing in his handling of the music other than having the orchestra play the score as written, but there was nonetheless a sense of musical storytelling—an urgent narrative unfolding—even in the bleak Nordic serenity of the Andante pastorale. Wordless vocal soloists Ellie Dehn and Michael Kelly floated their mellifluous sounds from offstage, presumably from the organ loft. The following scherzando interlude explored shifting, uneasy moods finally resolved by an exhilarating performance of the proud finale. Particularly noteworthy were the orchestra’s woodwinds and brass, which Blomstedt made sure to acknowledge during the applause, pushing through the strings to walk back and thank them personally.

In Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 Blomstedt steered a moderate course—energetic without pushing toward the supercharged manner heard in recordings by Carlos Kleiber or Sir Thomas Beecham, and restrained without an overly tight grip like past Cleveland conductors George Szell or Erich Leinsdorf. The introduction to the first movement found the orchestra being led flowingly—never wallowing—yet broadly enough to let the string players dig in to those grand scales. The main body was fleet without haste. An old sage like Blomstedt knows how to lead with a very light hand on the reins, pulling only when necessary. As players used to say adoringly about Beecham, “He let us play.”

One of the things that makes Beethoven’s Seventh so great is that the composer knew just when to alleviate the work’s endless upbeat energy with darker shadows. Great conductors know how to handle those shades. An outstanding example came near the end of the first movement, when the music briefly shifts through a series of remote, darker keys before starting the big push to the end. This handful of measures passes for nothing in most performances, yet it sticks out like a sore thumb if the conductor draws attention to it. From my seat in the dress circle, it wasn’t obvious that Blomstedt was doing anything different. But whether it was achieved in rehearsal or perhaps with just a facial expression during the concert, there was a change in texture, a sense of broadened vision putting the rest of the movement in perspective: this vitality isn’t random, it is the life force fighting the dark.

That darkness holds sway in the second movement, but again Blomstedt allowed room for expressive impact while keeping the forward flow in mind. Some of the softest dynamics could have been more hushed, but the conductor chose not to fuss, letting the players set a comfortable dynamic range. Likewise, the following scherzo was moderate, moving forward lucidly without sounding, as Beecham once famously said, like “a lot of yaks leaping about.”

Blomstedt loosened the reins further for the finale, which spun along at a joyfully brisk clip. As always, the conductor let the music make its impact cumulatively, without pushing. There was still, however, a volcanic surge of energy near the end, bringing the audience to its feet. Blomstedt again waded into the orchestra to thank soloists and sections and appeared visibly moved when one of the musicians presented him with a bouquet—not a gesture I recall seeing this orchestra make toward many guest conductors.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Mark Sebastian Jordan lives in the central highlands region of Ohio, where he’s a writer of historical dramas (The Mansfield Trilogy, poems (The Book of Jobs, Pudding House Press), and humor (1776 & All That, XOXOX Press) by day and an innkeeper by night. He has reviewed recordings for MusicWeb International since 2008.