Austria Salzburg Festival 2021  – Honegger, Brahms: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 29.8.2021. (LV, JP)
Honegger – Symphony No.3 ‘Symphonie Liturgique’
Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98
Herbert Blomstedt was born 30 years after Brahms died, and there is no mistaking the mystique that surrounds the 94-year-old conductor as he proceeds on this current series of performances with the Vienna Philharmonic of Honegger, Brahms, Schubert and Bruckner. This night, for Honegger and Brahms, conducting without a baton, his feet planted unshakably but implacably on the podium and without opening his study score on the lectern, the Swedish nonagenarian’s meticulous conducting style melded with the orchestra’s deep warmth built on their iconic string sound and characteristic winds and brass sound world to create a sui generis sense of cosmic breadth and emotion that resisted notions of comparison with other notable performances.
The Allegro non troppo of the Brahms opened tentatively at first and with the string lines folded into the overall sound, and it proceeded at a leisurely pace with a sense of serenity that suggested a hybrid of Merlin and Prospero until waking up suddenly at the end. The horns began the Andante moderato beautifully but throughout the movement there was relatively little dynamic variation, everything holding pretty much at mezzo forte while Blomstedt constructed solid blocks of gorgeous Viennese sound, highlighted by sublime playing by the violas in their big theme.
The Allegro giocoso was exciting if unsteady at times, but the Allegro energico e passionato was anything but: instead, it was slow, even ponderous, and focused on allowing the woodwinds to shine with rich autumnal colors and shades. Dividing the first and second violins on either side of the conductor paid dividends in their dialogue variation, and the movement almost came to a complete stop before the flute solo. Then, having revealed the vastness of Brahms’s vision, Blomstedt and the orchestra exploded gently into the stretch run, and the sold-out house responded with generous waves of applause.
Jim Pritchard writes: Circumstances beyond his control meant that Laurence missed the Arthur Honegger symphony and he asked me to complete his review by watching it on ARTE Concert. Honegger was a name unknown to me, but it was fascinating to listen to his Third Symphony and make notes about the impression the music had on me which almost perfectly mirrored its ‘story’. The composer was born in Le Havre, France, and his parents were Swiss. He lived for most of his life in Paris and was there when it was occupied by the Nazis in WWII. Honegger was a Swiss citizen and opposed the conflict, and though he refused to conduct his music for the Nazis, he was, thankfully, left alone and – when the war was over – in 1946 he put all his suppressed feelings about the war into his Third Symphony.
I have read how Honegger explained ‘My Symphony is a drama, in which three characters – real or symbolic – play: misery, happiness and man. It is an eternal problem. I have tried to face it anew’. It is titled ‘Liturgique’ and each of movements is named by a phrase from the Roman Catholic liturgy: ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of Wrath’), ‘De profundis clamavi’ (‘Out of the depths have I cried’), and ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (‘Grant us peace’). These are just there to indicate how the symphony is a reflection of his experience of surviving the war. In barely 30 minutes of music we hear two movements of threat, implied violence and militarism which bookend the Adagio which is full of angst, yet rather elegiac and ends with a ray of hope. There is more than a hint of Shostakovich to the music and indeed having first met Honegger in the 1920s, Shostakovich transcribed the Third Symphony for two pianos in 1947.
I have never seen the legendary Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt live – or at all for that matter – and what amazing control he had of the massed forces of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with the most gentle and genteel flutterings of his hands. One of my oft-used phrases is about virtuosic solo contributions from musicians and here – you would not be surprised – they abounded through all the sections of the orchestra from valiant pianist, percussion, brass, woodwind to strings. The ‘Dies Irae’ – Allegro marcato had a suitably martial undercurrent; ‘De profundis clamavi’ – Adagio was quietly beautiful and mournful and – despite the intervention of some portentous brass – there is a calm after the storm conclusion; whilst the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ – Andante after its quiet opening was restless with suggestions of marching and battle before the nonagenarian Blomstedt – now at his most vigorous – signalled the five tutti chords which bring a sense of resignation of the end of the symphony which features flute, piccolo and plaintive solo cello.