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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’ [46:59]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [42:40]
Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live, 7 May 2015 (7), 19 May 2016 (6); Gewandhaus, Leipzig
Video direction: Ute Freudel
Region Code: 0
Picture format: 16:9 NTSC
Sound: PCM Stereo; Dolby Digital 5.1 DTS 5.1
ACCENTUS ACC20413 DVD [91:58]

The Swedish-American conductor, Herbert Blomstedt celebrated his 90th birthday on 11 July 2017. This coupling of two Beethoven symphonies is, I believe, part of a complete cycle issued by Accentus to mark that milestone. It’s fitting that the cycle should have been given with the Gewandhausorchester since Blomstedt was the orchestra’s Principal Conductor between 1998 and 2005 and he continues his relationship with them as Honorary Conductor. I’ve admired a good deal of Blomstedt’s work on LP and CD: his EMI Nielsen cycle was my serious introduction to the Danish composer’s output and I’ve also collected quite a few of his San Francisco recordings. Unfortunately, though, I’ve only ever had the chance to attend one of his concerts. That was back in 2013 when he conducted the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester in Birmingham. That was a most impressive concert and I commented in my review that Blomstedt, 86 years old at the time, gave every appearance of being ten or fifteen years younger. It’s a great pleasure to see him in action again in these performances.

As in Birmingham, both in physical appearance and acuity of conducting Blomstedt defies the years. Here we have two exemplary Beethoven performances. I derived equal pleasure from the conductor’s very sound, unflashy musicality and from the Gewandhausorchester’s magnificent playing. Blomstedt divides the violins left and right while the double basses are placed at the rear of the orchestra, to his left, behind the first violins. Blomstedt conducts from memory and eschews a baton. I noticed that his facial expressions frequently indicate his enjoyment in the performances.

He sets a nice, sprightly pace for the first movement of the ‘Pastoral’. This sounds at every turn to be a good-humoured account of the movement and one can only admire the cultivated playing. In the second movement, the brook flows by at a beautifully balanced pace – the current is neither too swift nor too slow. In fact, the brook’s progress is genial. Blomstedt’s conducting seems effortless; the performance is relaxed - but it’s anything but somnolent. Towards the end the woodwind section, distinguished throughout, offer delightful birdcalls. The third movement is nicely nimble with a suitably rustic feel to the trio. Then, without any flamboyance, Blomstedt unleashes a potent storm. The concluding Shepherd’s Song is characterised by warmth and serenity. This is a truly beneficent account of the music and it sets the seal on very satisfying performance.

The reading of the Seventh was given a year earlier and demonstrates similar virtues. Blomstedt shape the first movement expertly after which the Vivace dances along with plenty of animation. The orchestral playing is polished and precise. The Allegretto is judiciously paced; the speed is anything but stodgy yet the music is given ample space in which to breathe. This is a super performance in which the use of contrast is telling. Dynamism is the order of the day in the third movement. The finale has energy and brio but Blomstedt keeps a tight rein on proceedings; there’s no hectic speed just for the sake of it. Nonetheless, the performance has drive and excitement and the Gewandhausorchester is on terrific form. Blomstedt conducts with plenty of vitality: in no sense is this the reading of an old man – except in so far as many decades of experience are brought to the music making. At the end, the Leipzig audience greets the performance and the performers very warmly. They’re a little slower to get to their feet than was the case after the performance of the ‘Pastoral’ but still there’s no doubt as to the respect and affection in which Blomstedt is held in the city.

The video direction of both performances is excellent; the pictures are very sharp. The sound quality is very good indeed; I was particularly pleased at the firm bass which does justice to the Gewandhausorchester’s double bass and cello sections. The booklet contains a lengthy note by Ann-Katrin Zimmermann; this is too fulsome for my taste but that may be a question opf the translation into English from the original German. There’s also a French translation.

These are rewarding, very musical performances which I enjoyed very much indeed. The DVD is a suitable tribute to a justly respected conductor.

John Quinn


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