Compelling and Enjoyable Tchaikovsky from Blomstedt

SwitzerlandSwitzerland    Larsson, Tchaikovsky: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Christer Johnsson (saxophone), Herbert Blomstedt, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich

Larsson: Saxophone Concerto
Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 5

I must admit I was a mite concerned, before hearing the first work in this evening’s concert, when I read in the programme that the composer of the evening’s saxophone concerto, Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986), had studied in 1929 with Alban Berg and adopted his twelve-tone technique in one of his early works for piano. I need not have fretted: Larsson stated that he wanted his audiences to enjoy his works, not find them too complex, to write “attractive music”.

In the early 20th century Scandinavia was not in the forefront, but rather on the periphery of central European avant-gardism; Larsson’s influences were more Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen than the Second Viennese School.

Larsson does not, in my view, however wholly hit the spot with his saxophone concerto, composed in 1934. The first movement meanders, rather directionless, contrasting virtuosic but unmelodic passages for the soloist with rather bland string writing for the string orchestra (why does so much string music sound the same?). The pleasing and pastoral middle movement brought Nielsen to mind, but without Nielsen’s talent for catchy melody. The jaunty final movement did allow both Blomstedt and soloist to swing and together they brought the work to a witty final conclusion. Christer Johnsson, the Swedish soloist, played his “baby” soprano saxophone with gusto and aplomb but even his virtuosity could not manage, in the words of a wag in the orchestra, to catapult this work into his list of top 5 saxophone concerti.

Blomstedt, at an amazing 86, still stands tall and elegant; in the Tchaikovsky he conducted with the full-blooded vigour of a youngster. His impeccable and clear conducting style remains exemplary.

The opening movement displayed plenty of vim and volume; the Adagio gave the woodwind their chance to shine, and Isaac Duarte on oboe stood out. Tempi were always perfectly judged, this was clearly a work Blomstedt admires and knows like the back of his hand. The Valse was full of attractive nuance, the Finale bouncy with menacing brass and hard-working strings. The orchestra palpably (and at the end, audibly) revere this esteemed conductor and welcome his annual visits (We all hope he finds the strength to make many more return visits). The orchestra had clearly relished their chance to play a Tchaikovsky favourite and the audience simply lapped it up. At the end, Blomstedt beamed and – even at the end of a third night’s repeated performance – looked as though he could play it all over again. Hugely enjoyable!

John Rhodes