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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 2, Op 73 (1877) [44:51]
Academic Festival Overture, Op 80 (1880) [9:58]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live Gewandhaus, Leipzig, October 2019. DDD.
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186851 [55:00]

We hear the warm, rich tones of the Leipzig horns at the outset of this performance and realise that we are in for the traditional kind of account that I grew up with in my younger days. Nowadays we are more used to the somewhat thinner textures of more ‘authentic’ accounts. Further on, the Leipzig strings are sometimes so full on that I often wished I could hear more of the winds biting through the texture. There are some important subsidiary melodies struggling to be heard through the admittedly beautiful wash of string sound. Even a main theme recurrence in the recapitulation, played by oboes, clarinets and bassoons, just before the rhythmic second subject returns, is swamped.

However, Blomstedt achieves real drama as we approach the ff passages just before the recapitulation when the gentle flow from the beginning of the movement develops into something much more menacing in mood. At this point Klemperer’s account with the Philharmonia has a particularly brazen brass section tearing through the texture. This effect is all the more scary in a movement which is mostly so genial with such a warm glow. Harnoncourt on Teldec from 1997, with the Berlin Philharmonic sounding considerably smaller and lighter than one would normally expect, has more forward thrust and also greater clarity in texture. Every strand of melody has its rightful place and the wind solos and ensembles are on equal footing with their string playing colleagues. This reading has a sense of liveliness lacking at times in the Blomstedt. Surprisingly, though, although Harnoncourt feels faster, the time taken for this movement is the same from both conductors. Blomstedt, Harnoncourt and Klemperer are all so impressive in their hugely different interpretations of this movement.

I was impressed in the second movement of the Blomstedt recording, where once again we are treated to a very warm and rich sound, but this time a good balance is achieved. Wind solos and ensembles are beautifully phrased and very expressive, with polished performances from all departments.

The third movement trips along playfully. There is a really good flow with fabulous wind playing to be enjoyed – listen to the first theme, first presented by the oboes, clarinets and bassoons, though I would like to have heard rather more of the pizzicato cello section playing light arpeggio and broken chord figures. Harnoncourt gets just the right balance here, as he does throughout most of the symphony. This time, though, Harnoncourt is a little slower in his presentation of the opening theme than Blomstedt, and his performance is lighter in texture although he is typically idiosyncratic. In the Blomstedt, I love the dramatic buildup just before the presto ma non troppo during the trio section. Here there is a sense of power and strength as the cellos and basses, together with the lower register of the violins, produce a spine-tingling effect.

In the finale, Blomstedt really comes into his own. Apart from the opening bar which sounds a tiny bit woolly and unclear, I can hear the winds just as well as the strings and throughout the movement their solos are beautifully presented and well articulated. Following the gentle sotto voce opening, Blomstedt hurls himself into the forte with great vigour and energy. This music is heavily syncopated (feeling off-beat, so that we lose our sense of pulse) adding to the excitement and producing a thrilling effect. There is terrific drive and energy in Blomstedt’s account of the finale. Strangely, Harnoncourt pulls the pulse back when he approaches these off-beat passages, which to my mind misses the point of Brahms’ tight rhythm and destroys the sense of drama. One of Brahms’ important and characteristic musical features is his use and development of rhythm, and Harnoncourt seems intent on destroying the effect of the syncopations. He is too slow, even lumbering along sometimes and missing the spirit of the movement.

However, I question Blomstedt’s sudden tempo increase at the arrival of the second subject, especially as it is marked largamente which is generally interpreted as meaning broadly, perhaps also stately, and usually implying slowing down a bit and playing more expansively. However, this tempo certainly brings a different and exciting aspect to this theme. On this melody’s return towards the end, again marked largamente, Blomstedt slows as he approaches it, and we have a sense of broadness which is never too slow.

Blomstedt’s Brahms 2 is superb. As always, it is interesting to hear Harnoncourt play a piece once, but usually for me, never a second time. Too many annoyances for that! Klemperer’s interpretation has so many wonderful moments, but it is too slow for today’s ears and sometimes it becomes ponderous.

Blomstedt’s account of the Academic Festival Overture is full of vigour, and it well portrays a sense of youthful exuberance and excitement. Musically it is superbly played and really gives the impression that the players are enjoying themselves in this musical romp.

A critic wrote in 2020 of Blomstedt’s Bruckner 9th in Bamberg that it was ‘not full of drama but full of life’. Another critic said that Blomstedt ‘never did tragedy’ and maybe this is why he is not perhaps thought of as one of the greatest conductors around today. Recently I heard him in Brahms 4th on a live-stream concert from Bamberg for his 93rd birthday, and also Mahler’s 9th at the opening concert of the 2019 Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic. The fourth movements of these great works are often thought of as tragic, but Blomstedt is more optimistic in his interpretations, making them seem life affirming.

I first met Herbert Blomstedt as a student of Igor Markevitch on his international orchestral conducting courses in the late 1960s, with the newly founded Spanish RTV Orchestra. Blomstedt was at the beginning of his career and at that time acting as one of Markevitch’s assistant conductors. I have often recalled an occasion when I was conducting Brahms Variations on the Saint Anthony Chorale. When I reached the fourth Variation in F minor, Blomstedt stopped me and said ‘No, no, not like that, this is not tragic, just very sad’. He then showed us students how it should be done.

Of all Brahms’ symphonies, the second is probably the one to which Blomstedt is most suited. At the age of 93 he is venerated and adored by orchestral musicians around the world. His unrivalled musicianship, enthusiasm, love of music, warmth and humility, all underpinned by his religious belief, mean that he has become an inspiration and an example to all musicians. In spite of his great age he is able to convey a lifetime’s experience and understanding of music. Maybe today, these are the true virtues of a great conductor. He trots on and off the stage with no physical support, is still able to stand for the entirety of, for example, Mahler’s 9th symphony, and although he has the score on the desk, it always remains closed. He says that the score in front of him gives him the inspiration he needs.

Returning to the Brahms, Blomstedt is well worth hearing in these works and I strongly advise listening to this recording. I really hope that Herbert Blomstedt’s international schedule can resume as soon as possible.

Geoffrey Molyneux

Previous reviews: David McDade ~ John Quinn


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