Monday, April 07, 2014

Blomstedt in Nielsen and Schubert

I bought a ticket a few months back for the first of conductor laureate Herbert Blomstedt's two programs with San Francisco Symphony, largely on the strength of the first works on the program, Carl Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto of 1928, to be played by principal clarinetist Carey Bell. Bell has been a favorite wind player of mine since he was principal clarinet of the San Francisco Opera orchestra; let's just say that I will never forget his playing in La Forza del Destino back in 2005, when Nicola Luisotti made his first local appearance. As careful readers of this blog know, I've been hoping to hear Bell in a work other than the ubiquitous Mozart clarinet concerto for a long time.

And the Nielsen did not disappoint: every time I hear something by the Danish composer, I find myself amazed that he isn't played a whole lot more often in the US. His music is lively, quirky, direct, tremendously energetic, and enormously appealing. The Clarinet Concerto is an offbeat work written for a clarinetist who was evidently quite the eccentric. Perhaps the oddest thing about the concerto is the prominent solo part for snare drum; the score doesn't call for timpani, and the snare drum acts as a foil to the often lyrical, but equally often flighty, clarinet part. It's a wonderful piece and got a terrific performance all around.

BUT. The big surprise on the program was Schubert's Great C Major Symphony, D. 944. I had quite seriously told Joshua Kosman before the concert that I was considering taking off after the Nielsen, on the grounds that, well, the Schubert is looooong and I am not a big fan of it.

Boy, am I ever glad I stayed. It turns out that the reason I haven't cared much for the piece is that I'd never heard Herbert Blomstedt conduct it. It is a gigantic piece, huge in scope and length and number of themes; it can be ponderous and hoo boy can it drag.

But Blomstedt neatly sidestepped every one of the inherent pitfalls, conducting the work with energy and momentum from the very first theme, which was noticeably faster than I have heard it before.

The performance was, indeed, long, clocking in around 50 to 55 minutes, because Blomstedt took the first and fourth movement repeats, but (except for a bit in the scherzo - how many repeats are there, anyway??) it was an entirely gripping and absorbing performance. In fact, it seemed shorter than MTT's 2009 performance, in which he omitted the first and last movement repeats.

Blomstedt used a large string section, and yet there was no muddying of textures: instead, there was the most marvelous transparency, with a beautiful rich string sound in which you could still hear every inner voice and detail of the string orchestration. He had the first violins on the left, seconds on the right, basses and cellos next to the firsts on the left. I've been saying for several years that Davies sounds betters with the strings in this formation, and this concert provides a little more backup for that claim.

I was also hugely impressed with Blomsted's control of the architecture and dynamics of the piece; in fact, he made the dynamics an obvious factor in the architecture and line.

Really, I've never heard a better performance of the Great C Major, and I expect it will be a long time before I hear one that's as good. I have grown more and more impressed with Blomstedt over time, and I hope - given that he is now 86 - that I will have many more opportunities to hear him.



Civic Center said...

Nice write-up, and the Schubert performance was a "great" surprise. It's strange how Blomstedt often bored me to tears when he was SF Symphony Music Director but decades later I look forward immensely to his guest conducting stints. Maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Or maybe he is a late bloomer!

I hardly went to SFS when he was MD, but yeah: his guest appearances have been wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Blomstedt became a much better conductor, or - more precisely - a more reliable one over the course of his tenure. His early years could be woefully eccentric, though also often very good. The tremendous improvement he wrought over what was already a fine orchestra, in technical and artistic command, over the course of his years, combined with the increasing assurance of his conducting to create some many fine things.

Remember, though, that while now he is more often excellent than not, he still occasionally creates outstanding flops, like the clinically dead Beethoven Violin Concerto and quizzically odd Nielsen Fifth he did last year that both of us heard. I always go because it's so rewarding when he gets it right instead.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, yeah, you and I were at the same concert for that program (and I think for last week's Blomstedt as well).