Memorable Strauss from Herbert Blomstedt, but his ‘Eroica’ doesn’t quite hit the mark

GermanyGermany Richard Strauss and Beethoven: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 22.9.2023. (MB)

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra © Stephan Rabold

R. Strauss – Metamorphosen
Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, Op.55, ‘Eroica’

For me, this was very much a concert of two (unequal) halves. Though I understand why it would have been programmed this way round, I could not help but wish, conceptually as well as contextually, that Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen had followed Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It could work the other way, of course, Strauss’s elegy for a humanistic Germany and Europe destroyed by barbarism hanging over that very world, those very values as expressed in Beethoven’s ‘Heroic Symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’. The problem turned out to be that Herbert Blomstedt’s conception of the latter, like so many current conceptions of the symphonic Beethoven, was to prove, considerable virtues notwithstanding, distinctly lacking in heroism whose demise might be lamented, let alone deconstructed.

Metamorphosen, though, received a model performance, as comprehending and as moving as any I can recall. If one closed one’s eyes, one could imagine it was not being conducted, or indeed that there was no conductor, at all: not in a sense of any lack of direction, quite the contrary, but rather that Blomstedt seemed, however much of an illusion this may have been, to act as enabler of a performance that came from the twenty-three Berlin string players as soloists, as members of a chamber group that expanded into an ensemble of smaller, constantly metamorphosing ensembles and whose frame of reference deepened as the performance progressed. Above all, Blomstedt seemed to enable the players to listen and to respond, to express the idea of the work. What Wagner would have called its melos, and Strauss would certainly have understood as such, was unerringly traced throughout, to the extent that it seemed more spontaneously to evolve than to be traced at all (not unlike the Prelude to Das Rheingold, or indeed the idea of a Beethoven symphony).

The Berlin Philharmonic offered the most cultivated of sound, without the slightest suspicion of self-regard. Textures were clear, though never ‘neutral’. Chiaroscuro was as sharp and as detailed as in a Caravaggio canvas. And at just the right times, the ensemble of ensembles became a full (or full-sounding) orchestra, attaining unanimity of voice in Wagnerian-Beethovenian fashion, prior, say, to highlighting a duet between principal violin and cello, or an expression of the most ravishing pain from viola. Harmonic motion and tempo were as one, attendants to a gradual yet undeniable path towards revelation of the theme from Beethoven’s Marcia funebre, until one could deny it no more — and certainly did not wish to. For the close was resolutely unsentimental and un-milked, and all the more powerful for it.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra © Stephan Rabold

A bright-eyed, bushy-tailed first movement of the Eroica shared many of the same virtues. If Beethoven had written, in Brucknerian vein, a ‘Nullte’, or a ‘Study Symphony’, this might have been it. The BPO sounded wonderfully transparent, with very much that sense of chamber music writ large, players listening and responding to one another. Is that, however, all one wants or needs with Beethoven? With Strauss, there are so many masks, diversions, and ironies, even in the apparently personal lamentation of Metamorphosen, that one is rarely if ever sure one is hearing, or would wish to hear, ‘the composer’s voice’. With Beethoven, as with Wagner or Mahler, and whatever the musicological investigations and deconstructions of recent years, a pleasant, non-committal Beethoven remains a strange and, at least for me, an unsatisfactory thing. It flowed beautifully, and that is far from nothing, but what did it mean?

The Marcia funebre fared better, sounding in context as much a response to Strauss as to the first movement, and working well in both ways. It was neither Wagner’s nor my Beethoven, but it would not be, given a very different interpretative framework. Here, the intimacy of Blomstedt and the orchestra’s approach did not overlook the gravity of the oration. It was dialogic, akin to a community of musicians, perhaps even citizens, coming together to pay their respects, but that community ultimately gave rise to something that did, after all, appear to be or at least contain ‘Beethoven’s voice’. Its counterpoint chilled and stirred; Beethoven spoke, before giving way, always in his shadow, to intimations of Mendelssohn.

Such intimations were to be heard at the beginning of the Scherzo too, before a boisterous, ‘early’ Beethoven demanded our attention. If those two tendencies had done battle a little more overtly, this might have been a properly dialectical experience. Alas, here and in the Trio, its wondrous trio of horns included, that nagging question of meaning returned. So too did questions concerning a lack of cragginess, obstinacy, and, not least, humour.

I felt that during the Finale too. It was good-humoured, certainly, often (doubtless in a nod to origins) balletic, but the gruffness of Beethoven’s humour, and indeed his and/or his music’s other characteristics, rarely registered. Violas fairly jabbed their early interjections, yes, yet it was difficult in the context of an overriding idea of the symphony to understand why. There was considerable variation of mood, the coming of the minor mode a welcome moment of transformation, yet the emotional vicissitudes on offer in very different ways in, say, Furtwängler and Klemperer, or more recently in Colin Davis and Daniel Barenboim, were never a possibility. Musicianly and beautifully played it was, and the audience seemed not remotely to share my reservations, giving Blomstedt a standing ovation whose genuine warmth was undeniable.

I shall give the last word to Wagner, the pre-eminent Beethoven interpreter of any age, and the most crucial link (still more so than Mozart) between Beethoven and Richard Strauss. In his 1851 ‘programmatic explanation’, born of direct experience of conducting the work and of considering where it led, he wrote: ‘The term “heroic” must be taken in the widest sense … If we understand “hero” to mean, above all, the whole, complete man, in possession of all purely human feelings — love, pain, and strength — at their richest and most intense, we shall comprehend the correct object as conveyed to us by the artist in the speaking, moving notes of his work. The artistic space of this work is occupied by … feelings of a strong, fully formed individuality, to which nothing human is strange, and which contains within itself everything that is truly human.’ Such thoughts are deeply unfashionable; and yet…

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment