Youth and Experience Triumph in Beethoven and Bruckner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Bruckner: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.3.2013 (JQ)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Bruckner:  Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, ‘Romantic’ (1878/80 version, ed. Nowak)

The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester was founded in 1986/7 under the auspices of Claudio Abbado, who remains its Music Director. Each year the members are selected by audition from hundreds of young applicants from all over Europe aged up to 26. It works with the world’s leading conductors and soloists and, as tonight’s concert proved, its standards are very high indeed. This Birmingham concert represented its sole UK date, and the penultimate stop, during its 2013 Easter tour, which entails eleven concerts in nine cities over a two-week span.

For this tour they have been joined by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. He is currently focusing on the music of Beethoven both on the concert platform and in the recording studio. Not long ago he released a recording of Beethoven’s First and Third Piano Concertos in which he also directs the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. One suspects a recording of the Fourth may be imminent: on the evidence of this Birmingham performance if a recording appears it will be well worth hearing.

The orchestra was modestly sized for this performance – six desks each of first and second violins with the rest of the string section in proportion – and I was delighted to find Herbert Blomstedt had divided his violins left and right. Throughout the performance the orchestral contribution was excellent, the playing light on its feet yet founded on firm tone. The balance with the piano was excellent and I noticed that Andsnes drew a surprisingly bright tone from the Steinway; that suited the music and his approach to it. His playing was immaculate. In the first movement he played with appropriate strength whenever Beethoven demanded it but there were countless subtle, delicate touches too. He chose the first, more substantial, of Beethoven’s cadenzas and gave a very fine account of it; at the end of the cadenza the reunion with the orchestra was beautifully done by all concerned.

I was impressed by the depth of tone from the strings in the slow movement though, because the number of players was sensibly proportioned, the string parts were not excessively weighty. Andsnes was a calm, poetic influence though there was no unwarranted exaggeration in his expressiveness. At the very end of the movement I liked very much the air of quiet tension in the performance. The finale displayed what I might call disciplined jollity. The performance was engaging and smiling yet one sensed it was all scrupulously controlled; I enjoyed it very much. This was a fine performance of the concerto and one that clearly resonated with the Birmingham audience. As an encore Andsnes treated us to a sparkling performance of Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, Op. 34, No 1.

A greatly expanded orchestra was assembled after the interval for the Bruckner symphony – the string section was doubled in size, for one thing. I was slightly surprised to see that Blomstedt had maintained his left-right division of the violins. In over forty years of listening to Bruckner I can’t recall attending a performance in which the strings have been divided in this way, indeed, I’m not sure I’ve heard a Bruckner recording with divided fiddles. My goodness, what a difference it made! I have never been so conscious of the differences between the two violin parts and I lost count of the number of times that a small – and sometimes a not-so-small – detail in the second violin part caught my ear for the first time. It was something of a revelation. Blomstedt recorded the work back in 1981 with the Staatskapelle Dresden, a recording that was generally well received (review) but I don’t know if he divided the violins on that occasion.

It was very interesting seeing Blomstedt in action. I’m familiar with his work on disc but I’ve never had a chance to see him conduct ‘live’. Very recently I watched a DVD in which Daniel Barenboim conducted the same symphony. Barenboim moulded every phrase with loving care and gave a very fine performance that I suppose one could describe as interventionist. By contrast Blomstedt’s approach seemed much simpler, more direct and, indeed, more restrained. Not that there was any lack of care for the music or inattention to detail – the disposition of the strings was sufficient evidence of his careful approach. I make that point not to suggest that Blomstedt’s approach was preferable to Barenboim’s or vice versa: both were valid and satisfying.

Throughout the performance Blomstedt’s pacing seemed to me to be judicious. Importantly, in the outer movements he kept the music moving forward with good momentum yet, in doing so, did not sacrifice any of the nobility; in other words the music was given just the right amount of breadth. Equally, there was no dawdling in the slow movement; instead one felt the flow was just right. The scherzo was exciting, indeed, at times the brass fairly blazed. In the scherzo material the rhythms were strongly articulated. If I have a criticism it would be that the trio could have been more affectionately phrased. Blomstedt held the finale together well and there were some thrilling, noble climaxes. The build-up to the final peroration was pregnant with tension and then Blomstedt and his young players brought the symphony home in a blaze of glory.

As for the playing, it was consistently fine. The track record of this orchestra is that many of its alumni go on to play in Europe’s leading orchestras and on this evidence it’s easy to see why. The brass playing was notable firstly for its consistent splendour but secondly – and just as importantly – for the fact that the brass never overplayed their hand so as to dominate the textures more than Bruckner intended: these players may be young but they’re anything but immature – and they’ve been expertly coached. The horns are crucial in this symphony and the section – and its principal – played with distinction. Above all, however, it was the string section that, time and again, caught the ear. There was a satisfying depth of tone but the sound was never so rich as to be corpulent. I’ve already mentioned the beneficial effect of the divided violins. Blomstedt’s placing of the violas and cellos in front of the podium, respectively to his right and left, meant that the alto and tenor sections of the string choir were right at the heart of the orchestral sound. Perhaps the cello line was just a fraction less prominent than one is used to hearing in Bruckner, though I never felt that the line was underpowered. The violas had their particular moment of glory in the slow movement where, on a couple of occasions, they have an extended singing line accompanied by pizzicati from the rest of the strings. This melody was beautifully sung, the sound full and warm. I should also say that the nine double basses, positioned at the back of the orchestra on the conductor’s left, provided a very firm foundation to the sound. As well as the individual and corporate excellence of the whole orchestra, their sheer commitment was readily apparent at all times.

This was an extremely satisfying performance of the Bruckner Fourth. One has heard more richly nuanced performances (from Barenboim, for instance) or more searching, ‘spiritual’ readings (say from Günter Wand) but Blomstedt’s way with the score was thoroughly musical, idiomatic and extremely convincing in its own right. Small wonder that the audience reacted very enthusiastically. It was evident, both in the actual music-making and in their respective body languages during the applause, that the young musicians think very highly indeed of Herbert Blomstedt, as does he of them. There seemed to be an excellent chemistry between them and it produced splendid results in this concert. I hope it won’t be thought indelicate if I note that Herbert Blomstedt will be 86 later this year; to be honest, he looks like a man ten or fifteen years younger and there’s absolutely no suggestion of advancing years in his conducting. Here was an excellent example of a wise musical elder statesman and committed young players energising each other with memorable results.

John Quinn