A tall, slim, elegant figure, looking more in his early 50s than his actual 75 years, Herbert Blomstedt bounded towards the podium with immense energy. Watching him one felt he was a conductor of total integrity and classical reserve: every economic gesture he made was for the music and the musicians and not for ego or effect. Consequently, unlike many of the orchestras I have witnessed recently, every member of the Leipzig orchestra had their eyes constantly on Blomstedt’s direction. Transparency of textures allied to subtle contrast of dynamics, and a seamless handling of transitions, were the hallmarks of Blomstedt’s understated but incisive conducting throughout the evening.
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra lived up to the highest expectations of those familiar with their many fine recordings. The orchestra had a distinctly rich, sonorous tone which was so suitable for their chosen programme. What the orchestra did not have time to guage was the some-what dry, recessed acoustic of the Barbican Hall, which tended to smudge the line between the double basses and cellos in these performances. Whereas the LSO are accustomed to this shortcoming in the hall, and have adapted accordingly, the Gewandhaus Orchestra were at a disadvantage.
The opening bars of the Concert Overture Die Schone Melusine featured a wonderfully clear balance between oboes, clarinets and horns. These beautifully blended instruments produced a dark, sumptuous sound so suited to Mendelssohn’s dreamscapes. Blomstedt handled the difficult transition from the introduction to the main allegro with superb skill, making the work flow seamlessly. Mendelssohn overtures, like those of Rossini, are often misconceived as light bonnes bouches concert openers, easy to play and conduct, but in fact they are some of the most difficult pieces of music to carry off in the classical repertoire.
Alfredo Perl’s playing of the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 2 was very hard toned and depressingly bland. Throughout the three movements of this concerto he never seemed to shift colour, mood or tempo, and the coarse-grained playing took on a harshness that wore on the ear. However, what made this performance intensely interesting were the glorious sounds coming from the orchestra as well as Blomstedt’s authoritative and assured conducting. Again one heard every minute detail of the score coming through in perfect clarity and balance. It seemed ironic that after this dull and pedestrian piano playing it was Blomstedt who stood at the side of the stage to let the pianist take all the applause.
Brahms 1st Symphony was given a granite-like performance of chamber-like clarity. Again the Blomstedt reserve and restraint delicately but inexorably built up a nervous underlying tension throughout the performance. This subtle, self-effacing style of conducting was used to particular effect in the first movement Un poco sostenuto – Allegro, where he maintained a flowing but measured control of tempi and produced a perfect balance between the lyrical and the dynamic. Here was a conductor who truly understood that less is more.
The Andante sostenuto had eloquence, grace and majesty, and was never laboured. Notably reserved was the opening Adagio of the last movement where the deliberately measured pizzicato strings created great tension. Blomstedt’s cool and classical approach to this energetic movement delivered a perfectly judged build up to the closing chorale bringing the symphony to a satisfying conclusion.
As with the Mendelssohn pieces, again one could hear every detail of Brahms’ score. Noteworthy was the dark tone of the contra bassoon in the first and last movements, so frequently lost or scanted in many performances. Also this was the only account of this symphony I have heard where one could hear every single note of the timpanist throughout the symphony; again, often obscured under lesser conductors. The timpanist had a rare combination of subtlety allied to firmness and made one realise the importance of hearing every note Brahms wrote. Blomstedt’s genius was his ability to reveal every detail of the score with the utmost transparency.
By way of an encore, Blomstedt conducted a solid and dramatic account of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture; again he handled the notoriously difficult transitions and dynamic markings with total control and consummate ease; the horns in particular had great bite and a tragic darkness. An exhilarating performance. This was a world-class conductor in total control of a world-class orchestra.