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S & H International Concert Review

Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60, Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4, in F Minor, Op. 36, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 14th, 2004 (BH)

Letís get the rant out of the way now. When I first heard Herbert Blomstedt was coming with the Concertgebouw, one of my favorite orchestras, I had hoped he might bring some Hindemith, or Nielsen, or Sibelius, or even Carmina Burana, since he made some terrific recordings of this repertoire with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the 1980ís and 1990ís. The Nielsen symphonies in particular are pitifully underplayed, and the chance to hear, for example, No. 5 with its starring role for snare drum, or No. 6, with its singular part for the triangle, would have been a big treat given the ensembleís extraordinarily talented and underrated percussionists, not to mention the glowingly lush strings, woodwinds with a distinctive reedy timbre and sophisticated brass. As with all great orchestras, every section excels. Further, some of the programs in the last few years have been as imaginative as they come, such as Chaillyís inspired matching of Varèseís Tuning Up, Ligetiís Atmosphères and Lontano, and the Mahler 4th Symphony on a single program. So it was with a bit of disappointment that these latest concerts, resolutely conservative, appeared on the horizon.

All that said, the performances pretty much swept aside any objections, and in a way, one could hardly ask for more apt models of what traditional classical concerts should be. Although Iím not a huge fan of the Beethoven 4th, one could not ask for a more "right-sounding" version than the one Blomstedt delivered. A friend with me kept remarking how crisp the ensemble sounded, and this was definitely muscular Beethoven, played with the kind of nimble abandon that only the best ensembles can muster. I donít recall hearing the bassoon, just one of the instruments that emerged in what were often rapturously clear textures. No mud puddles here, there, or anywhere. Also notable were some of the huge pauses, and in the silence that followed, the sound resonated with such fidelity in the Carnegie space that one could only marvel at the true intonation and blend.

The Tchaikovsky was terrifically exciting Ė not out of control, not pushed, not the adrenalin rush of say, Gergiev with the Kirov Ė just beautifully played, with keen attention to some of the workís colors. The third movement pizzicatos almost made me laugh out loud; they were so spot-on and precise. And when the last movement began, the initial crash with the orchestraís cymbals and marvelous bass drum must have made a gentleman nodding off next to me regret doing so.

As a completely welcome and thoroughly fun encore, Blomstedt launched into one of Dvorákís Slavonic Dances (Op. 46, No. 3, Polka) that to this listenerís ears was almost the highlight of the two concerts combined. The gentle, lazily flowing introduction had the Concertgebouw winds in delicious form, before the brilliant second theme charged in with the orchestra at full blast. This piece might be called Polka as Hurricane if ever there were one, and expertly played, as it was here, it offered thrills to spare.

Bruce Hodges


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