With the lamentable departure of the beloved Bernard Haitink from this sphere, Herbert Blomstedt, whether or not the fact interests him, (and he is no doubt tired of being interviewed on the subject) has assumed the elder-statesman mantle among the world’s great conductors. So, our recent interview with him entirely avoided the longevity topic and instead focused on his thoughts on repertoire for his upcoming BSO concerts on Thursday through Saturday.
But we cannot resist sharing an anecdote from Alex Ross’s New Yorker feature from last summer about the American-born Swedish maestro:
After the performance, I went backstage for what I assumed would be a brief chat with Blomstedt. He had the mien of a bookish village pastor, his face free of sweat. I had resolved not to ask the obvious, dumb question: How can he still be so vigorous at his age? Some have credited his pious, abstemious habits: raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he has never had a drink or eaten meat. But, as he told Michael Cooper, of the Times, in 2017, “That’s not the reason. It’s a gift.” Blomstedt added wryly, “Churchill drank lots of whiskey and smoked enormous big cigars, and he lived to be ninety or so.
In additions to luck of the genetic draw perhaps the 95-year-old’s reputed insatiable curiosity and indefatigable interactions with impressionable youth such as Tanglewood Fellows have kept him lively. Fully booked through 2024, the peripatetic emeritus conductor of the San Francisco, NDR, and Leipzig orchestras will pause in Boston just long enough to deliver one of his specialties, Bruckner’s Fourth, and, in company of the young pianist Martin Helmchen, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453.
Some question and answers follow.
Jeffrey Gantz: You made a recording of the Bruckner Fourth with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 1981, for Denon. The liner notes are mostly in Japanese, but they confirm that you used the 1880 Novak version. On the other hand, the discography of the authoritative abruckner.com web site has that recording down as the 1880 Haas version. Which version had you used then, and which version will you be conducting in Boston? How much do the versions differ?
H.B. They both may be right. Because basically I surely used the Nowak version of 1878/1880. But I might have inserted some details taken from Haas. I have not been able to check this now 40 years later. They concern very minor details, like using a single flute instead of two flutes playing in unison. Or one horn instead of two horns in unison. Such variations are daily orchestral routine in search for ideal balances. A case of a little greater difference is at letter M in the second movement, where Haas lets the trombones and the tuba play a final c-minor chord, and Nowak omits this chord, which makes the sound smoother and more lyric.
In Boston next week we will use a new (2018) edition by Benjamin Korstvedt that has just been published by the “Musikwissenschaftlicher Verlag” in Vienna. They have done this with the cooperation of the Vienna Philharmonic (and, by the way, dedicated it to me). The most notable difference to the traditional Nowak edition can be heard in the last nine bars of the finale. Nowak includes a quote of the main theme of the first movement, whereas the new edition leaves it out, and instead lets the schmetterne triplets of the horns dominate the end. Both versions stem from Bruckner himself.
How much have your views of the Fourth changed since 1981?
HB: The phrasing is more detailed, the tempos are more logic and I have found much more drama in the symphony, especially in the finale. I see the finale basically as a big slow movement – of course also with faster parts. I feel that Bruckner was absolutely right in shaping the finale in this manner, because the traditionally “slow” second movement in this case is a rather fluent piece of music, marked “Andante quasi Allegretto,” thus the finale is the only real “slow” movement of the symphony. Mahler later took up this idea, turning the finales of his third and ninth symphonies into giant, moving adagios.
What do you think about the nickname “Romantic” and Bruckner’s program for the symphony?
I think his instinct was correct also in this, even if his fantasies of “medieval cities at dawn” and “proud knights on horseback” are more typical of his own days, and not so helpful today. But the way he uses the Solo horn in the first movement and the “hunting horns” in the Scherzo are definitely “romantic” The whole orchestra and its instruments, are the same as used by Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony 75 years earlier—but how different it sounds! In his imagination he lived in a completely different world.
FLE: Do any young conductors get Bruckner right?
Why not? Old conductors don’t have a monopoly in doing things right. Nor are mistakes reserved for the young. The main thing is that the musician is earnestly in search for the “right” tempo, and not just imitating others. When the tempo is consistent and logical, it makes the impression of being “right”.
Does the Bruckner Fourth have any affinity (or vice versa) for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453, the single piece on the first half?
Yes, but that is only a coincidence. As Bruckner in the second theme of the first movement lets a titmouse sing his“ti-ti-tuuut, ti-ti-tusi”), so then does Mozart let his favorite starling sing the whole rondo theme of this concerto. But I often couple a not-so-long ago Bruckner symphony with a Mozart concerto. They are both typically Austrian composers, even if they lived hundred years apart. They are both deeply rooted in Austrian folk culture, and shaped by its traditions in church and theater. A wonderful combination of simplicity and sophistication. And both are unmistakably individual . . . perfectly shaped by the time and style in which they lived.