in: Reviews

March 11, 2016

Blomstedt’s Beethoven

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Herbert Blomsted leads Garrick Ohlsson (Winslow Townson photo)

Herbert Blomsted leads Garrick Ohlsson (Winslow Townson photo)

Last night Herbert Blomstedt led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist in Piano Concerto No. 1 followed by Symphony No. 7.

Beethoven’s first piano concerto is a fascinatingly odd work. In three movements, it seems short yet isn’t. Musically it is Beethoven before “Beethoven.” Even as it isn’t. It opens, Allegro con brio, with a page straight out of Haydn, before diverting its flow into newer channels. By turns gentle then martial, this 1795 (probably) work shows the composer absorbing influences, digesting the wisdom of his predecessors, and searching for his own direction. There is a recurring flirtation with a fugue, yet it never quite coheres into canonic counterpoint. Ohlsson brought out these voices clearly and caressed them lovingly. There is also a recurring fascination with dissonance here, and our soloist voiced this playfulness and this novelty. The longest of the extant cadenzas adds to the imbalance of the composition as a whole, and this struggle to mix familiar and new into something original. The second movement, Largo, rapidly turns from the frolic of a child’s song to a lullaby with captivating tenderness an a propulsive, passionate sadness. Sudden twists and turns are a hallmark here, and the quick pace between movements reinforced this. The concluding Rondo: Allegro is frisky, scampering, filled with delight, light-hearted, and ponderous—all at once yet all connected. Played, as here, with intelligence and burnished skill the fascination of this music becomes the focus and kernels pregnant with possibility catch the ear, expanding as the concerto advances and resonating in listeners’ memories with later works of Beethoven (including the symphony on the second half of this program), blossoms unfurling in happily unexpected ways.

The second half offered Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Minor, op. 92. This liminal work intrigues us for potentialities and explorations even though it as become quite familiar. Opening Poco sostenuto there is a classical or pastoral calm, which transitions into the Vivace that is the bulk of the first movement. The transition is treacherous metrical modulation territory which recordings by professional ensembles don’t always master. Here? Nailed it, for a truly auspicious start. The spry Herbert Blomstedt led the BSO in an agile reading, with clear direction and clear gestures meet to the music. A fleet performance this, with all lines kept audible and beautifully balanced. The second movement, Allegretto, built in intensity and picked up tempo, giving the music an added dimension of power agitatingly just on the edge of rushing but not, noticeably forward-moving as anxiety joined angst. Instead of a lugubrious dirge, this was a heightened cry of anguish. The Presto took a cue from the opening pastoral, recalling the frolic of the first movement of the piano concerto with which the concert began. Attacca into the Allegro con brio, the symphony hurtled to its conclusion. A grapple with form and direction, a grasp for an altered musical voice, and still a coherent, cohesive composition running the gamut from grief-laden cries to flitting ditties to peaceful contentedness to the exhilaration of a whirling dance spinning ever more out of control.

Seeing “All-Beethoven Program,” I feared uninspired familiarity, yet possibilities always exist, and those of us who warm seats in Symphony Hall often enough feel that frisson just before the concert begins, wondering whether a great miracle will take place. Last night electrified: lightning struck, a miracle occurred, magic happened. The musicians transcended the quotidian and accessed the power and passion which dispensed a heady drug for all present.

Blomstedt brought the magic. He needed no wand. The score was superfluous, its pages never turned. His conducting gestures were clear and evocative. Sometimes his arms took on the postures of traditional Indonesian dance, while at other times his hands were subtly coy. As the music encompassed the world, Blomstedt embodied it. By the end of the concert, the musicians were as thrilled as the audience and Lowe refused the prompt to rise, insisting Blomstedt take a bow on his own.

Was it a perfect performance? Of course not. There is no such thing and our electronic recordings spoil us into an empty quest for sterile perfection devoid of the phenomenology of performance. The BSO Steinway had a markedly brittle upper register, despite Ohlsson’s varied touch. The ritardando into the concluding coda of the concerto was wobbly. In the symphony, I heard a couple slightly-too-early entrances from the first violins. There was an added something (reverb? echo?) when the brass and timpani played, seemingly due more to where I sat. (Sound bouncing off baffles perhaps?) Did any of this matter? Not a bit and enumerating imperfections is precisely not the point. Except perhaps the frustrating death-rattles of our tubercular patrons, but even that can be transcended—and was. The fine players lost themselves in the music, reveling in Beethoven’s power, emotion, ecstasy, and agony. What could be better?

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

9 Comments

  1. Indeed, Thursday night’s concert was tremendous, as Mr. Prince indicates. But there’s something further that needs to be said.

    I am SO GRATEFUL to hear vibrant, alive, emotion-filled, “big band” Beethoven being played in Symphony Hall instead of what’s becoming increasingly common when we hear Mozart, Haydn, and even Beethoven. I’m referring to the historically informed performance (HIP) approach, which instead to these ears gives us emaciated, under-fed, emotionally-stunted renditions that usually (although not always) rip the soul out of the music on the mantle of academic scholarship. I’m not going to challenge the scholarship because I do not consider myself sufficiently informed on it. All I’ll say is that I find the results of that scholarship completely unconvincing musically, as delivered by some of its leading proponents such as Roger Norrington, Claudio Abbado (in Mozart in particular), etc.

    Based on what we heard last night, Herbert Blomstedt is one of an increasing few conductors who see no need to re-think the music along HIP-ster lines (unlike, say, Bernard Haitink). Blomstedt played big-band Beethoven for all it was worth. And thank God for that! Garrick Ohlsson’s playing was just so incredibly alive, alert, engaged, musical, tasteful, and spell-casting. Blomstedt was of the same mind. They made a relatively inconsequential but pleasant work sound a lot more than that. It was a fantastic performance and set the stage for what was to follow.

    The performance of Beethoven’s 7th was all that and more. It was alive, lived-in, totally connected music-making of high order. Emotions were on full display and without apologies. Blomstedt WANTED the orchestra to play their hearts out (as also with the 1st piano concerto), and they did. It was all tastefully done, but the emphasis was on vibrancy, rather than on existing within some arbitrary set of rules at the expense of the music itself.

    Unfortunately, when one listens to Andris Nelsons’ Mozart piano concertos (and his performance of Beethoven’s 3rd with Paul Lewis a few years ago), it seems Nelsons is trying to take a hybrid approach that is partial HIP-ster while not completely losing sight of the traditional big band approach. But his underfed Mozart piano concerto I heard this past season seemed far more in the HIP-ster camp, and it was not engaging to this listener.

    I’m sure plenty of Boston Music Intelligencer participants will object to this assessment of the state of things. And probably some did not love Blomstedt’s Beethoven for these or other reasons. But based on how the audience erupted (!) last night, it seemed to me that Blomstedt delivered the essence of Beethoven far more successfully than I’ve ever heard in any number of HIP-ster Beethoven performances that I’ve had the misfortune of sitting through.

    I know Blomstedt is not on the program next season at all. Let’s hope he returns to the BSO in Symphony Hall again the following season, before he leaves us for good.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 11, 2016 at 4:03 pm

  2. “I am SO GRATEFUL to hear vibrant, alive, emotion-filled, “big band” Beethoven being played in Symphony Hall instead of what’s becoming increasingly common when we hear Mozart, Haydn, and even Beethoven. I’m referring to the historically informed performance (HIP) approach, which instead to these ears gives us emaciated, under-fed, emotionally-stunted renditions that usually (although not always) rip the soul out of the music on the mantle of academic scholarship.”

    Agreed, MM – bravo! I’m really looking forward to tomorrow night…

    One cavil, though: if you’re referring a bit later to Andris Nelsons and Richard Goode’s K.595 last April, I have to disagree. It didn’t sound underfed or particularly HIP to me that Thursday night. I found it lithe, witty, and quite compelling…and I seem to recall that I wasn’t the only one who did.

    By the way, I also remember that evening as the last time I saw Gunther Schuller.

    Comment by nimitta — March 11, 2016 at 4:32 pm

  3. This review is spot on. I liked the Thursday evening concert so much that I’m seriously considering buying a ticket for next Tuesday. There was plenty to admire: Clint Foreman nailing the flute solos all evening, Rachel Childers tossing off the “bullfrog” low notes in the scherzo for example — both of whom got well-deserved solo bows. It was also fascinating, in the concerto, to hear elements in the piano part which foreshadowed similar elements in the “Emperor.” On the other hand, in the second movement, Beethoven at points approaches the sublimity of the slow movement of Mozart’s 21st (and later slow movements in his own concertos), but he fails to sustain the mood. From my seat, it was enjoyable to be able to see Garrick Ohlsson’s hands on the keyboard as he gave us a beautiful renditiion.

    What was most important was how it all came together to give a richly satisfying evening.

    I recall a BSO concert several years ago of the Beethoven 6th and 7th Symphonies. I thought the 6th was done magnificently, and the 7th was merely good, but, distressingly, the 7th got a much bigger ovation because of how it ends. I was, however, impressed by how well the horns did, especially in the 6th, and I stayed behind and congratulated Jason Snider on the section’s work, and his low notes in the 7th in particular. But this time, the whole orchestra and conductor deserved all the applause and every bravo for a commanding performance that brought out every bit of Beethoven’s brilliance. They and Mr. Ohlsson equally deserved the prolonged ovation for the concerto.

    My recommendation: get a ticket to one of the remaining performances for an unsurpassed evening in Symphony Hall.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 11, 2016 at 7:52 pm

  4. Who needs Beethoven (in serious tone, please)? one can understand his pureness and nobleness in his music.

    PC1 seemed under-rehearsed. The orchestra part is far from early Beethoven’s authoritative elegance. The pianist played much better in my opinion.

    I have a long list of moments where I was not pleased with the B7 performance. One of the offensive ones was in the later half of the first movement. Flute and oboe turned a genuine melody (Beethoven’s signature pureness) into sth exotic (jewish? mid-estern? jazzy? I don’t know). The symphony could have been much more inspiring. But few players or listeners would know the difference.

    Under better direction (Nelsons, I hope), BSO may be able to play slightly better Beethoven.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 12, 2016 at 10:24 am

  5. I liked the performance Saturday and remember it as rich, musical, and exciting. Ohlsson did a good job of demonstrating that Beethoven was already an assured and eccentric genius, and not just an eager young man on the rise, when he composed the 1st concerto. The slow movement reminded me of a Mozart adagio. Blomstedt’s 7th wasn’t shy about using the full power of the orchestra, but I don’t see what was so un-HIP about it. Tempos were vigorous, and there was no larding on of uncalled-for portentousness and intimations of Significance. The allegretto was an allegretto, not a largoleptic andante as it would be under the baton of someone like Böhm or Klemperer. There was transparency; the instruments had individual character. The woodwinds, for example, had not quite been purified of the taint of wood; I could even distinguish the oboes from the clarinets.

    It is generally understood that an assertion repeated frequently enough will eventually be accepted as true by large numbers of people, despite a lack of any evidence for its truth, and even a great deal of evidence for its falsity. This principle is the foundation of persistent rumor, national stereotype, civic ideology, and religion. The commonplace calumny that the world of HIP is one of “emaciated, under-fed, emotionally-stunted” music-making, and that its advocates and practitioners are merely engaged in academic exercises, is an obvious example of this. It is I suppose futile to refute it, because those that believe it are committed to doing so. To believe that musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, and Phillipe Herreweghe, among many others, have been been motivated, throughout lifetimes dedicated to musical discovery, by mere quibbles about correctness, requires a kind of willful blindness.

    It is not merely the practitioners of HIP, however, that are subject to this calumny; by extension all those that admire them, and taken enormous pleasure in their performances, are either mere dupes, or followers of fashion, or emotionally stunted themselves. I must say this seems unlikely. Of course my memories of innumerable hours of excitement, fascination, and joy may all be an illusion; perhaps it is all really just self-satisfaction at being in agreement with stuff written in books. If so, it is a most persuasive illusion, and an adequate substitute for reality.

    When Harnoncourt set out to record Beethoven’s symphonies, there were many who regarded the project as absurd or even objectionable, apparently believing that what the world really needed was a fourth or fifth set from Karajan. No composer requires dynamism, vitality, or an utterly passionate commitment more than Beethoven, and they thought that these were exactly the qualities that Harnoncourt and his co-conspirators avoided as a matter of principle. But it was an enormous success, because it had all of those qualities and more. Of course there are people who do not like those recordings, because there are accents where they do not expect them, and spaces where they do not expect them, and tempos that are unfamiliar to them; but no one could call them emotionally stunted except those who prefer sentimentality to sentiment, and grandiosity to grandeur.

    Comment by SamW — March 14, 2016 at 9:31 pm

  6. +1, every word, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.

    (And not to mention Gardiner and many others.)

    Comment by David Moran — March 14, 2016 at 10:01 pm

  7. We shared, on Friday, the excitement expressed by the review and the comments. It’s worth noting that the transparency was partly a result of string seating: Vn1, Va, Ce-Ba, Vn2, so that antiphonal effects were clear and the violas’ important role was audible. Also, happily, all repeats were taken. By the way, Blomstedt’s Beethoven in Dresden is available cheaply on the Brilliant label.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 15, 2016 at 10:49 am

  8. Colin Davis recorded “Messiah” in 1966 with a – for then – radically “older”-style orchestra (it was actually the LSO being neo-baroque) and interpretation decisions. He was, of course, building on the work of many older interpreters, going back through, for example, Wanda Landowska and Arnold Dolmetsch. I recall it being regarded as a revelation (or a travesty, if that was your point of view). The posh program book (it was 12 inches square!) had a callout from Davis’s essay on the performance style, which read something like “Let’s put our red-blooded Messiah back where He belongs!” So Davis did, and others have since followed suit, and we now have so-called HIP orchestras, and “modern”-orchestra conductors like Blomstedt who have learned the lessons well.

    Blomstedt’s Beethoven symphony recordings with the Dresden Staatskapelle were made in 1976-80, and are very different performances from what he does today. For instance, the 1st movement of the 7th has no repeat (other repeats are omitted throughout the set) and the tempo is a great deal slower than what we’ve heard this week in Symphony Hall. (The 7th is structurally incoherent without all its repeats – very pretty, but incoherent.) He recorded the 3rd and 1st with San Francisco in 1990 in performances like his current ones: all repeats, swift tempos, lithe interpretations.

    Frans Bruggen did a wonderful complete recording of the Bthv symphonies with The Orch of the 18th Century; off the top of my head there is one repeat omitted somewhere. John Eliot Gardiner and his Orch revolutionnaire et romantique have also done a complete set (and complete Schubert symphonies, and complete Schumann symphonies and other works – incl the delicious Konzertstuck for four horns which we will have a chance to hear from the BSO next season). And – perhaps most astonishing and best of all – Gardiner and Robert Levin have done the complete Beethoven piano concertos on “period” instruments (some of the pianos are old-restored, some new).

    Recordings can always be jiggered around so balance problems can be discreetly effaced. But live performances show what these orchestras and “early” pianos can do. We’ve had two of the concertos here in the past month or so (Bezuidenhout and Boston Baroque doing 2; Levin and H+H doing 4). Levin’s performance and recording give the truth to the hoary old metaphor for the second movement of the 4th concerto, that it represents Orpheus taming the furies (maybe Liszt said it, maybe not; but there it is).

    These are all fine, red-blooded performances, and all the above mentioned recordings are still available.

    Comment by Nick Altenbernd — March 15, 2016 at 12:11 pm

  9. Ah, the old HIP pseudo-controversy. We get it from listeners and record critics, who complain about “bloodless” performances. Even otherwise well-informed performers will allege that early instrument guys only talk about instruments and never about interpretation. I’m sure both problems have happened at one time or another, but we also have Eugene Ormandy’s most stimulating work and Karl Bohm’s posthumous recordings to compare it all to.

    As for Beethoven/Blomstedt, I was only able to hear it on broadcast. There was much to like, although there were other things that might have been fixed with the luxury of re-takes. One small thing that bugged me was the intro to the 7th. It started more or less in tempo, but old habits made things flow more slowly once the 16th-notes started up. It’s one thing to say you’re going to read the music as written, but quite another to let go of all the performances you grew up with.

    Solti once did the same thing with the 5th, only worse. After enthusing for several minutes on television about following Beethoven’s instructions (imagine that!), he went out and gave more or less the same interpretation as before– just squeezed into less time. Rather than being a graceful, subdivided 1, the “slow” movement was just a really FAST THREE as only Solti could make people do.

    Enough complaints. It seemed like a nice concert and I’m tired of rehashing stereotypes.

    Comment by Camilli — March 15, 2016 at 10:33 pm

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