Beethoven’s most important conductor is ninety-four
Ninety-four-year-old Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt has achieved an almost unprecedented longevity in his profession. Various conductors remained active past the age of ninety — Leopold Stokowski turned ninety-five — but no nonagenarian has followed a schedule comparable to Blomstedt’s. Earlier this month, he spent nearly two weeks at Tanglewood, working with the Boston Symphony and with students from the Tanglewood Music Center. At the end of the summer, he will take the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on a European tour of eight cities. In the fall, he travels to Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo, Leipzig, Munich, Bamberg, Oslo and Paris. More American dates are planned for next year, including a return to the San Francisco Symphony, which he conducted from 1985 to 1995. With the recent retirement of Bernard Haitink, who is ninety-two years, Blomstedt is effectively installed as the wise elder of the podium.
The assumption that orchestral conductors of great age radiate untold wisdom is a dubious assumption, one that exudes adoration of the moldy personality. Here again, the world of classical music makes an equally dubious cult of young people with a fresh face. The esteem in which the orchestras and the public now hold Blomstedt is a belated reward for a decidedly unscrupulous musician who has gone about his business decade after decade. What he proposes is above all a kind of supernatural accuracy: no gesture seems out of place, no gesture seems routine.
So it was with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which the Boston Symphony performed under Blomstedt at Tanglewood. Like most conductors of all stature, he has recorded all of Beethoven’s symphonies; in fact, he has toured them twice, first with the Dresden Staatskapelle and then with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The Dresden version, dating from 1975 to 1980, is as reliable a Beethoven cycle as one can find. It rivals the authority of the contemporary efforts of Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan while avoiding their intrusive ways. The Leipzig ensemble, recorded between 2014 and 2017, documents Blomstedt’s recent preference for cleaner textures and faster tempos. Improbably, it’s just as absorbing as the beloved previous version. Very few drivers produced of them Beethoven cycles that can serve as benchmarks for future interpretations.
At Tanglewood, Blomstedt kept his Leipzig rhythms brisk, although he may have slowed the pace down a bit in the Allegretto. Superficially, his approach matched the prevailing Beethoven fad: the days of the expansion of late Romanticism having passed, conductors today compete to see who can lead the brash and hit the accents with the most. aggressiveness. The lively and abrupt Beethoven has in fact become the norm, as predictable as the old Wagnerian. Blomstedt is aware of the pitfalls. At the dress rehearsal, he stopped several times to hum passages to the orchestra, seeking a more varied phrasing and singing.
The result was a performance that jumped in vitality without plugging your ears. The balances have been handled with special care, so that the solo voices, especially in winds, hold up well against swirling strings and crackling brass. In the opening bars, the first grand chord of the A major landed with a loud thud, but the tutti in the third, fifth and seventh bars were a little more indented, giving space to the intermediate oboe solos. , clarinet, horn and flute. . For comparison, I turned to a recent recording by the talented but erratic young conductor Teodor Currentzis and his ensemble musicAeterna. There, all the tutti are hammered in a strangely brutal way.
Throughout the symphony, Blomstedt found a balance between mad strength and melancholy lyricism. In the Allegretto, few conductors can resist unleashing a heavy weight of sound when the main theme of the procession reaches its climax fortissimo, but then again Blomstedt held back, ensuring that the counter-melody of the first violins shone through clearly, with his fiery legato. The restraint strategy was crowned with success in the closing pages of the finale, when the orchestra went wild with a foaming energy that bordered on animal joy.
After the performance, I went backstage for what I assumed was a brief conversation with Blomstedt. He looked like a bookish village pastor with a sweatless face. I had resolved not to ask the obvious and stupid question: how can he still be so vigorous at his age? Some have credited his pious and sober habits: Raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he never drank or ate meat. But, as he told Michael Cooper, from the Times, in 2017, “This is not the reason. It’s a gift. “Blomstedt added wryly:” Churchill drank a lot of whiskey and smoked huge big cigars, and he lived to be ninety. “
Perhaps a factor behind Blomstedt’s longevity is his restless and curious relationship with even the most familiar scores. When I asked about the evolution of his Beethoven, he replied: “It changes a bit with each new performance. But that mostly changed when the new edition, the Bärenreiter, came out, around 2000. ”In this edition, Beethoven’s metronome marks appear at the top of the page, not in a footnote. “They’re not sort of optional,” Blomstedt said. “They are binding, perhaps not in the letter but in the spirit.” Like many musicians, he once considered such incredibly fast tempos, but the performances of original instruments conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington helped convince him otherwise. Indeed, in the case of the “Heroic” Symphony, the marks produce a formal balance which is lacking in the monumental readings of Wilhelm Furtwängler, whom Blomstedt admired in his youth. “I felt as a young musician that the final was weaker,” he told me. “Now, in tempo, it’s the crown.” He sang themes from the first and last movement, demonstrating the continuities.
What advice does Blomstedt give Boston players? “Well, they’re used to the faster tempos,” he replied. “You in America are lucky to have Toscanini – he was very modern that way. Other issues caught Blomstedt’s attention. He sang the second ascending and descending theme of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which was also on the program, with Joshua Bell as soloist. The fourth falling at the end of the first sentence, he explained, should be “DEE daw “- stressed, not stressed.” But they play it DEE DAW. As BAW-STON. If they were talking like they are playing, everyone would be laughing. I try to work as much as possible on this. I try to show it with my hand. The feedback I get is when I notice the musicians are happy, and they do it even more beautifully than I could imagine. It’s a two-way street: I give them something, and they give me back even more.
During a break in the dress rehearsal, Blomstedt stood on the podium for several minutes, conversing with Haldan Martinson and Julianne Lee, two principals in the second violin section. They referred to a passage in the recap of the first movement of the seventh, in which the winds jump prematurely in D major while the strings remain in A. “It’s an interesting question,” Blomstedt told me afterwards. “Of course that’s fair. It’s like the “Heroic”, where in the first movement the horn enters E flat while everyone is still dominant. There are a few other examples like this in Beethoven, where parts of the orchestra pull the whole thing off. So here the woods say, ‘Come here, we wanna come in this direction.’ “
We continued to talk for almost an hour: about Bruckner’s next bicentenary, in 2024 (Blomstedt is sold out that year); about his notoriously sour Swedish colleague, Sixten Ehrling, who died in 2005; on his favorite Swedish composers, from pioneering Romantic symphonist Franz Berwald to eclectic modernist Ingvar Lidholm. But I felt I had to wrap up the conversation, mainly because I was ready to go to bed. Blomstedt came out of his dressing room to greet a young conductor, Felix Mildenberger, who served as his travel assistant and who also looked a bit sleepy. The sage strode across the hall, timelessly robust like the symphony he had just conducted. ??