Herbert Blomstedt conducts a powerful Bruckner’s Fifth with the Tonhalle Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bruckner: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 2.6.2022. (JR)

Herbert Blomstedt (courtesy of Tonhalle Zurich)

Bruckner – Symphony No.5  WAB 105

Well, what can one say? Blomstedt (a staggering 95 next month) is a marvel, utterly remarkable. He does admittedly live down the road (in Lucerne), so travel to the concert venue is no great exertion but evening performances of a major Bruckner symphony three nights running is a feat even for younger conductors. On top of that, he has only just returned from London where he performed Bruckner’s mighty Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonia (whom he praised highly, by the way, when I chatted to him after the concert). He does not look at all worn out; he emerged onto the stage with a wobbly gait, slightly unsteady on his feet, but no real mobility issues. Once on the podium, the years are shed, although he does complain of some shoulder pain. He stands throughout, though now concedes to using a stool at rehearsals. He needs no score. After the performance, he had sufficient reserves of energy to sign CDs and chat at length with his admiring fans who formed a long queue.

Remarkably, Bruckner never actually heard this symphony performed by an orchestra; it was not until 1935, nearly 40 years after his death, that the original full orchestral score was performed (in the Haas edition). The first movement is rather bitty, with pauses between sections, Bruckner laying down the building blocks for the rest of the work. Some of the brass interjections come over as rather crude. Blomstedt played it loud, very loud. The second movement is arguably Bruckner’s greatest Adagio. Simon Fuchs’ plaintive oboe led to a noble melody for the rich strings who dug deep. Blomstedt’s interpretation of the movement had grandeur and again we were blasted by the brass. We danced through the Scherzo before the mighty Finale. Bruckner seems to have had trouble had trouble with his finales, none of them are totally satisfying. The finale of the Fifth is quite complex, and chorale and counterpoint dominate. There is plenty of Brucknerian stop/go which can puzzle or infuriate some listeners. There was some fierce string playing, to excellent effect. Inevitably, it all built up to the electrifying Coda in which the full force of the brass section was unleashed and there was no holding back. It was a perfectly judged, measured reading and a powerful, impressive performance – no-one is in any doubt that Blomstedt is a highly experienced Brucknerian.

The cheers for Blomstedt were repeated and raucous; the orchestra refused to stand for one curtain call, stamping their feet in approval and great admiration for this great conductor. The only sadness was that, again, inexplicably, the hall was not much more than half full.

God and his health willing, Blomstedt will return next season to conduct symphonies by Berwald and Schubert. The thought of, and planning for, future engagements certainly seems to keep Blomstedt going strong. Long may he continue.

John Rhodes

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