Too-Deliberate Beethoven Ninth Takes Awhile to Heat Up

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven: Kiera Duffy (soprano), Sara Couden (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone), San Francisco Symphony / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Ragnar Bohlin (director), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 1.2.2017. (HS)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

During his tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony in the 1980s and 1990s, Herbert Blomstedt displayed a welcome penchant for sharply delineated performances, especially with the core orchestral repertoire of German composers. His technique was marked by a particular precision of stick technique, and it seem to bring out details in the music with digital clarity.

As music director emeritus since, his annual two-week stays with the orchestra have largely focused on Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. This time it was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Given the general malaise and unrest in the air at this moment nationally, the “Ode to Joy” could not be more welcome.

Wednesday night eventually got to a joyful conclusion, but Blomstedt seemed focused upon a more deliberate account of Beethoven’s mood swings through the first three-and-a-half movements. Even with his score closed on the stand before him, Blomstedt set steady paces that allowed precious little breathing room for phrases to bloom in slower sections or gain momentum in others.

Many conductors don’t use a baton, the better to extract more supple music making. Though Blomstedt went bare-handed, his gestures were less curvy and more straight, and the music emerged foursquare and carefully delineated. Sonorities and inner voices emerged nicely, but the pace felt relentless rather than unsettling. There was not much contrast between slow and fast, loud and soft, dense and open-textured.

There was little mystery to the opening measures, and buildups to smaller climaxes in the first movement meant less than they could have. Even the movement’s final pages felt perfunctory. The Scherzo marched along without much spring until the time signature changed to alla breve, when the pace picked up. Admirably, the Adagio stopped short of sentimentality, but its search for profundity didn’t quite get there.

The finale’s explosive opening didn’t catch fire either, although Blomstedt’s deliberate pace let the overlapping lines come through clearly. Finally, the basses and cellos injected some personality with their recitative and first quiet statement of the “Ode to Joy” theme.

And then the voices entered the picture. Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams announced the famous interruption, “Fruende, nicht diese Töne” (“Friends, not these sounds”) with real personality and shimmering vocalism. When the other singers joined his colorful oration, the joy started bubbling up, and the entire chorus delivered equally radiant and piquant beauty.

The soloists, especially soprano Kiera Duffy and tenor Nicholas Phan, delivered their message with precision, enthusiasm and flair, and mezzo-soprano Sara Couden was right with them. This may not have been the starriest quartet to sing this piece in Davies Hall, but it definitely lifted spirits, and did so in style.

The orchestra responded to this expansion of their forces with their best playing of the night. That, in turn, seem to energize Blomstedt, who drew sharp contrasts between the “Ode” variations. Buildups to climaxes had more energy, and the climaxes repeatedly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Blomstedt continues his residence next week with performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (with Yefim Bronfman) and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.

Harvey Steiman

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