Sunday, February 24, 2013


Severance Hall
February 21

A hit with both the audience and musicians.

Inspiration returned to Severance Hall with a flourish this weekend in the person of conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who offered a masterful treatment of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and a thrilling rendition of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”).

This space was critical of Blomstedt’s handling of Nielsen and Beethoven symphonies the previous weekend, in his first of two consecutive appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra. The music sounded pro forma – competent, but not what one expects from a conductor of Blomstedt’s caliber. By comparison, the Mozart and Dvořák symphonies were electric, carefully crafted interpretations that imbued old warhorses with fresh energy.

Blomstedt conducted the Mozart symphony much as one imagines the composer himself would have: standing on the stage floor rather than a podium, working without a baton or score. Reduced to about 40 players, the orchestra was also in an 18th-century mode. From the opening bars, Blomstedt established a tone befitting Mozart’s later works – darker in color, with a steady, somber tempo. It’s not uncommon to hear that in the first movement of this symphony, but Blomstedt kept a tight rein throughout, lending the piece gravitas.

The stately tempo let the music breathe in the second movement, space that Blomstedt used to good advantage in creating light, elegant strings and clear, rounded woodwinds. Turning both the volume and tempo up a bit in the third movement gave him an opportunity to draw strong contrasts between the top and bottom strings. The famous fourth movement also demands a faster pace, but Blomstedt maintained superb control, finding nuances in the music and keeping it clear and balanced. Even more impressive than the sound was watching him regulate it with an understated roll of the wrist, or sometimes a single finger.

The orchestra doubled in size for Dvořák, and unlike the timid percussion he used in Beethoven’s Symphony. No. 7, Blomstedt came out blazing in the New World – not just with a booming timpani, but piercing horns that remained prominent throughout the entire piece. As someone who has heard Czech orchestras play this symphony on a number of occasions, this critic found the horn treatment, along with much of Blomstedt’s phrasing, unusual but not unsatisfying. The Czechs tend to identify with and emphasize the emotion in the piece. Blomstedt approached it as a masterwork of composition, giving equal weight to every section of the orchestra and maintaining sterling transparency even in the noisier passages.

That gave the woodwinds in the second movement an added sparkle, though what really impressed was the hushed sound of the violins – a distinctive feature of the second movement that is very difficult to achieve. Blomstedt was by turns explosive and restrained in the third movement, and maintained a fine balance in the fourth until the closing moments, when the horns rightfully came to the fore. In all, it was a well-considered and lovingly crafted interpretation, the work of a mature professional.

Blomstedt ended the evening with a love note, one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (Opus 46, No. 1) as an encore. The music was almost overwhelming coming from such a large orchestra, but the big sound matched the love everyone was feeling at that point – including the players, who stamped their feet and tapped their bows, echoing the enthusiastic applause from the audience. It was a fitting tribute not just to that evening’s performance, but to a world-class artist who, at 85, still has something to say.

To hear George Szell’s version of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9:

No comments:

Post a Comment