|Off to the races with a consummate pro.|
Do superstar conductors have off-nights? Judging from Herbert Blomstedt’s performance with the Cleveland Orchestra last Thursday, they can certainly have uninspired ones.
The relatively short program featured two symphonies: Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Blomstedt, a Swedish-American who has led orchestras from Stockholm to San Francisco for nearly 60 years, did not use a score for either piece, working from memory in short, efficient strokes. His economical style on the podium reflects his larger stage presence: all business, with only perfunctory bows, and none taken without the full orchestra standing for applause as well.
Nielsen labeled his 1910-11 work “expansive” not only as a musical cue (the first movement is marked Allegro espansivo), but also as a thematic statement, reflecting its all-encompassing vision of heaven and earth. Blomstedt established its exuberant quality immediately, with a brisk opening movement that evoked a carnival atmosphere at times. The sound was not very crisp, with most of the color coming from the horns. This was characteristic of the entire evening. The orchestra’s glorious strings tend to dominate most performances, but Blomstedt worked off the rich tones and vibrant colors he drew from the horns and woodwinds.
The second movement was also uptempo, surprisingly so for a pastoral interlude. The wordless vocals floated in and out of the music beautifully, though with soprano Ellie Dehn and baritone Michael Kelly singing offstage, it was hard to appreciate their artistry. But the fine balance demonstrated one of Blomstedt’s strengths – his ability to carefully calibrate the sound, taking it from full volume to a whisper in a heartbeat.
Rhythms, mostly in the strings, drove the third and fourth movements, and Blomstedt embellished those nicely with colorful accents from the horns. But the frantic pace robbed the music of some of its clarity, particularly in passages with the full orchestra, which sounded dense and even cluttered at times. It wasn’t until the closing minutes of the fourth movement that the energy and disparate musical elements finally coalesced into a three-dimensional aural image, giving the piece the depth and authority it lacked.
The Beethoven symphony sounded much the same: strikingly uptempo, with bloodless strings, captivating woodwinds, and a bright, dry tone. Despite a propulsive rhythm in the first movement, the strings never really caught fire, and the percussion was so soft as to nearly disappear at times. That was true of the entire piece, which lost some of its characteristic impact with a muted timpani.
As in the Nielsen work, Blomstedt used the strings as the rhythmic engine, which turned the second movement into a dance rather than a dirge – more like Beethoven’s sixth rather than his fifth symphony. Well-crafted and finely articulated, it nonetheless lacked tension and dynamics.
The famous melodies of the third movement were better-suited to Blomstedt’s style, rendered in engagingly brisk and playful fashion. The final movement raced by at a gallop, with more fine work from the horns and a rousing momentum that brought the audience to its feet even before the final notes had faded.
Which offered a reminder that interpretations are often a matter of taste. For this critic, Franz Welser-Möst’s reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in November was more thoughtful and refined, adding interesting dimensions to the piece. By comparison, Blomstedt’s No. 7 seemed like a surface treatment – clean and smart, but with nothing new to say. He will be back this week with mainstays of the repertoire from Mozart and Dvořák. Hopefully those will hold more inspiration.
For more on Herbert Blomstedt: http://www.sfsymphony.org/About-Us/Musicians-Conductors/Herbert-Blomstedt