Blomstedt conducts the Tonhalle in a remarkable performance of Schubert and Berwald

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Schubert, Berwald: Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 7.12.2022. (VL)

Herbert Blomstedt (c) Frederic Meyer

Schubert – Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D. 417, Tragische
Berwald – Symphony No. 2 in D major, Capricieuse

Last Wednesday, I visited the Tonhalle Zurich for various reasons. On the one hand, there was the special programme: the orchestra had two symphonies in store for us. And on the other hand, of course, there was the star guest Herbert Blomstedt, who at the age of 95 still knows how to attract audiences to the halls in which he gives guest performances. Blomstedt has a permanent place in the Tonhalle Orchestra’s season programme and cultivates a special bond with the musicians, which was clearly noticeable as soon as he stepped on stage with them. Every concert creates an individual, special atmosphere. Consequently, it was hardly surprising that the concert hall was full, excited voices filling the hall before the concert.

Franz Schubert is one of the most influential composers of the early Romantic period, and although he died at the age of 31, he left us a vast oeuvre, including more than 600 secular vocal works (mainly Lieder). Musicologists agree that it was he who created the genre Kunstlied – one of the reasons why he stands out from his predecessors of the Viennese classical period, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The special thing about Schubert’s Lieder is that he composed very poetically. It is not a musical idea that is the guiding principle, but the linguistic precept. When thinking of Schubert, symphonies will not necessarily be the first thing that comes to people’s minds. But he composed such symphonies too, and the first six even during his youth. Schubert probably (also) composed the Fourth Symphony for Otto Hatwig’s orchestra, in which he played the viola. It was precisely this orchestra that organised kind of house concerts, which were generally not open to the public.

Right at the beginning of the first movement of the symphony, the Tonhalle Orchestra’s string section demonstrated their skills by playing a perfect introduction. After those 29 bars, the main theme in C minor is introduced, which soon gives way to the secondary theme in A-flat major, integrating a minor-key counter-theme, which is heard twice and repeats itself in alternating ways. The movement ends in the coda with a radiant C major conclusion.

For the second movement, the Andante, Schubert could have drawn his inspiration from Beethoven. Here, as in the first movement, he deviates from the conventional key scheme and repeatedly chooses A flat major as the major counterpart. Beethoven did the same in his Symphony No. 5 and Pathétique. The Andante is also introduced by a string movement in a gentle pianissimo. This motif is followed by a wonderful solo oboe, played by Simon Fuchs, and then by the flutes and clarinets.

Schubert adds tragedy to the Menuetto with a theme consisting of a chromatically descending scale. In the third movement, too, strings and winds alternate with repeating motifs. A very powerful string motif is followed by a clear flute part. Sabine Poyé Morel as solo flutist deserves special mention here. For me, the highlight was the final movement, the Allegro, to which Schubert added a playful bassoon figure. The finale ends in C major with trumpets and quadruple horns.

After the break, the Tonhalle Orchestra came back with a playful symphony by Franz Berwald, a lesser-known Swedish composer. But it is clearly an injustice if this work is not given the respect it deserves. Berwald’s symphonies were only published posthumously, and conductor Herbert Blomstedt has played a major role in their rediscovery and increasing popularity. The Symphony capricieuse is considered lost – what we heard was a reconstruction by Ernst Ellberg based on a progress sketch of the work.

The first movement begins with an introduction of the main motif by the strings. The first and second themes both begin with a sweeping upbeat. Berwald plays with contrasts similar to those previously used by Schubert in his Fourth Symphony. In the second movement, which follows a flowing, calm motif, I was particularly struck by Blomstedt’s conducting and how he literally passed on impulses to the musicians. The whole of the second movement is a calm and sweet contrast to the first and last movements.

The third movement begins like an unsteady murmur, different heterogeneous voices coming together to form a homogeneous whole, like a swarm of bees excitedly buzzing around. In the third movement, we hear a lively alternation between strings and wind instruments. The entire finale is thus very turbulent and appealing.

The most beautiful thing that evening was the gesture of the conductor and the strings after the last note had sounded, fine artists well aware they had just given two wonderful performances.

As usual the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich outdid itself, and under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt the audience witnessed a symbiosis of two great pillars of classical music. I look forward to their next concert and hope to hear Maestro Blomstedt again soon.

Valérie Litz

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