Blomstedt brings plain-spoken Bruckner to Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Bruckner: Cleveland Orchestra / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor). Severance Hall, Cleveland, 27.2.2020. (MSJ)

Herbert Blomstedt (c) Cleveland Orchestra

Bruckner – Symphony No.5 in B-flat major:

Great music is open to different approaches. That being a given, it is nonetheless true that most listeners develop preferences for certain pieces. At different times, I have found myself convinced by a wide range of interpretations of the music of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, from the epic dramas of Carlo Maria Giulini’s recordings to the sleek and lithe performances led by the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst. But I do think some of the Bruckner symphonies are more resilient to a range of approaches than others. If there’s one Bruckner symphony that needs a tight focus, it is Bruckner’s densely polyphonic Fifth Symphony.

The piece is mighty in its intellect, its erudition, its sheer epic engineering. All of the usual Brucknerian building blocks are here, from the ceaseless building and ebbing of tension through fractal-like passage work to the brass chorales that fly a bridge between Palestrina’s medieval motets and the music dramas of Richard Wagner. But in this symphony, Bruckner was the most abstract he ever was to be, constructing a dense tome on the art and science of counterpoint instead of looking inward to personal emotions (as in the Third, Fourth, or Seventh), or toward cosmic soulscapes (as in the Eighth and Ninth). Austere and imposing, the Fifth is a giant Antikythera Mechanism that, once set in motion, will run its course over the next 70 minutes, demonstrating its own brilliance without particularly offering the listener a helping hand to climb aboard.

Every conductor who tackles this work must decide how to handle it. Some, like the late Eugen Jochum, do all they can to give personal touches to the music, to lend a sense of narrative to its thesis-like demonstrations of musical architecture and counterpoint. Welser-Möst tightens the leash and zips through the piece with a poised and pointed brilliance, emphasizing its Apollonian aspects. Revisiting his recording reminds me how urgent he makes the music sound.

In this concert, Herbert Blomstedt opted for plain-spoken literalism. It’s a valid approach, and a characteristic one for this dean of conductors who has earned his legendary status with interpretive honesty. But as much as I love Blomstedt’s yearly visits to Cleveland, I wasn’t convinced that his non-interventionism was enough to hold together this intricate cathedral of sound.

The opening offered mixed signals. To go back to the example of Jochum and Welser-Möst, Jochum started the first movement by shaping the slow-moving chords and having the strings play with warm vibrato, so that when the forte appears, it is like a mirror-image response to the quiet part, an almost Beethovenian drama. Welser-Möst avoids this unwritten shaping in his performances, letting the string chords drift like clouds to be suddenly interrupted by the lightning of the forte.

Blomstedt’s opening was initially similar to Welser-Möst’s, even restricting the strings’ vibrato to keep those drifting chords very plain indeed. But the forte was underpowered and a touch sluggish, with some hesitancy in ensemble. While the coordination smoothed out (mostly) as the performance went on, there was not a lot of drive coming from the podium. Instead of blazing conviction or compelling vision, Blomstedt offered an unrushed unfolding of Bruckner’s thoughts. While that would work for many of Bruckner’s symphonies, such patient plodding didn’t spark the music to life here. Characteristically, there was no dawdling, but the overall grip was loose. Even when tempos moved at a good rate, there wasn’t much drive.

In places – such as toward the end of the second movement or in the scurrying scherzo based on the same pattern – the unexaggerated music generated its own focus, which was surely Blomstedt’s intention for the whole thing. I’m just not sure such a vast machine can operate convincingly without a higher energy level. For example, tension built as fugue themes piled up near the end of the piece, but the ending itself was perfunctory, not capping what preceded it but simply stopping. Such literalism, particularly in the warm but unresonant acoustic of Severance Hall, did not lift this music from didactic demonstration into compelling living art. I can’t help but go back to Bruckner’s description of himself as a ‘fiery Catholic’ in contrast to the ‘cold Protestant’, Brahms. This performance wasn’t very fiery.

Principal oboist Frank Rosenwein led the brilliant winds with outstanding solos, and the brass were grand. In a nod to Blomstedt’s eminence, the orchestra refused to stand for one of the curtain calls, making Blomstedt take a solo bow which he reluctantly did. There’s no doubt that Herbert Blomstedt is a treasure, and one hopes he returns to conduct in Cleveland for many years to come. This particular performance was simply not my cup of tea, as I think the work itself needs a strong influx of energy to carry along its rather academic argument. Others may welcome its plain-spoken patience with open arms.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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