The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Friday, February 26, 2010
Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor
Mozart: Symphony No. 36 in C major, K.425, “Linz”
Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 in A major
There appears to be something of a tug-of-war going on in the world of Mozart performances.
In the ascendancy these days, self-confident revisionist scholars, seeking to sweep away Victorian accretion, place before the public spiky, twangy and fiercely rhythmical works for small forces of original instruments. Traditional Mozart conductors, on the political defensive and seemingly chastened as romantics, come to audience rescue with slightly more refined, slightly less detuned, slightly more softly sprung music for slightly larger forces. Scarcely anyone anymore, (perhaps Barenboim), will stand before 100 players and lead a symphony by Mozart or Haydn in the manner of a Bruno Walter, an Otto Klemperer, a Herbert Von Karajan or a George Szell.
The early music movement ideology, in other words, has seemingly won the struggle to set boundaries. I happen to believe this is premature. “Chocolate Box” Mozart could indeed be turgid and swollen, like bad Brahms, but letters reveal that Mozart was thrilled to have 95 players for his “Paris” Symphony No.31, and 67 musicians for the Symphony No.34. Similarly, Haydn performed with 100 players for his two sets of “London” Symphonies. Neither composer appears to have worried about doubling the woodwinds to balance the strings, and there is not a hint of commentary to suggest large forces would have been considered too coarse for the music of the day.
One does well to remember that concert rooms in the 18th century held about 700 people at most, approximately the size of New York’s Alice Tully Hall. Anyone who has heard 100 players in such a hall knows the music would have been incredibly loud and “high-impact”, especially with hard-stick 18th century percussion. Mozart deliberately opens No. 31 for this reason, with four loud chords resolving in a violent upward snap. He wanted to shock people awake. I have never heard a performance which fulfils that wish.
I predict, though, that the authenticity specialists will eventually pull together performances of 100 or more original instruments in Haydn and Mozart, keeping their lively sense of articulation, but forgetting their qualms about doublings, and then we will get some idea of what a classical symphony was really meant to sound like. That we are fifty years into the early music movement, and nobody has even tried such a performance, says a lot about the war between ideology and historical fact.
The Mozart 36th Symphony which Herbert Blomstedt unfolded for the Davies Hall audience on Friday was exquisitely beautiful in the way of conductors of old, but smaller scaled than would have been his wont at one time. In that sense it was a performance of accommodation. There were just under fifty players on stage, this in a large hall which once held 3000. Blomstedt, at 82, looking as always like an ageless and cheerfully upright Swedish schoolboy, conducted without podium or baton and seemed at home doing so.
The “Linz” is the first Mozart Symphony to have a slow introduction. It is not so mysterious and subterranean as the prologue to No.38, but it hints at dark things, and Blomstedt captured its beauty with more subtlety than I expected. Indeed, except for the small scale of the ensemble, I kept thinking during this performance of Karajan’s notion that a player making an entrance should sound as though the note is already playing. There was a silky, luminous quality to the way a phrase would appear, and then, just as you grasped it, a tiny diminuendo to its disappearance. Nothing is more wonderful in music than a beautiful moment which seems to arrive out of nowhere and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It is the equivalent of managing to dance without thumping the stage or squeaking one’s shoes…. The orchestra played for Blomstedt with nearly perfect concentration. If there was a criticism, it would be that repeats outstayed their welcome. Countless repeats, unfortunately, are part of the reputational blackmail extorted by the new orthodoxy.
Herbert Blomstedt can be a somewhat foursquare conductor at times, as the Bruckner performance later in the evening would demonstrate, but there is a Bruno Walter side to him in Mozart, as his Dresden CD cycle reveals, and this warm spirit seemed to infuse all four movements. Record buffs of a certain vintage will recall a rehearsal disc in Walter’s set of Mozart Symphonies with the “Columbia Symphony”, in which the conductor tried to get the orchestra to sing out with portamento on the last two bars of the first movement’s opening allegro theme. He succeeded in rehearsal, but the recording itself revealed that the players only half remembered what he had asked for. Blomstedt didn’t try to do anything so emotional, but you could close your eyes, imagine some more strings and nourish the spirit. Bravos were in order!
It is no accident that Bruckner and Mozart are frequently paired in concert. Somehow, they inhabit a world of similar harmonic purity. And, though separated by a century, they often use similar cadences. I’ve often thought the slow movement of the Bruckner Third greatly influenced by Mozart–indeed, the opening string theme could have been directly composed by him. Bruckner’s Sixth, which made up the second half of Friday’s San Francisco Symphony program, carries fewer direct Mozartian moments, but breaks some new ground.
Every so often, if you listen carefully, a symphonic work will open a window on the everyday technology of the composer’s day. In the Brahms First, for example, just before the drumbeats which end the first movement, you can hear the piece slow down in exactly the way a horse slows its cadence to a stop. In symphonic pieces by Franck. Chausson and Magnard, written long before Honegger’s “Pacific 231”, there are many spots where the music is propelled along by a quickly repeated “pah-pah-pah-pah-pah-pah” in the woodwinds, which must surely reflect the sound of locomotives traversing the countryside in the distance. You don’t hear it in anybody’s music written before 1850 or so.
I found myself wondering, then, what was behind the opening of Bruckner Six, with its short staccato propulsive motif. Telegraphy? Textile mills? The piece is full of purposeful whirring and clacking…..Whatever the inspiration, this nervous rhythmic figure and its answering brass explosion hold the entire symphony together, much as the later Walton first and Roussel Third Symphonies are unified by a propulsive rhythm.
When I was a young man, the Sixth was the first Bruckner Symphony I heard that didn’t seem confusingly loose. It managed to keep going without stopping and noodling and seemed to have a touch of the romantic heart about it. I was fortunate to learn the piece in Klemperer’s famous recording with the New Philharmonia, which made the lyrical second theme of the opening movement burst forth with what would surely be called ardor, a nearly non-existent emotion in Bruckner’s Symphonies. Klemperer also took the slow movement faster than customary, lending its conclusion a wistful nostalgic grace.
The Blomstedt rendition I heard on Friday seemed, unfortunately, to be more concerned with plodding consistency than fluidity. The San Francisco Symphony produces a convincingly European brass sonority at all times, as not all American orchestras do, and is totally appropriate in this composer’s music, but a certain trudging quality took over Bruckner’s famous “walking basses” in Blomstedt’s rendition, and the performance never really recovered from it.
The music was not slow…but seemed so. The audience was sluggish to respond at the end, and you could see the players themselves were a bit lukewarm about the spirit of the evening, but this was the end of two weeks with their old maestro, and before long the applause was sincere. Herbert Blomstedt truly made this orchestra the world quality ensemble it has remained ever since, and on a good night, with something like the Reger Mozart Variations or the Nielsen Third, there is no one better.
Curiously, the very light and shade that so enlivened the Mozart “Linz” Symphony, would have been the ticket here. During the first half of the program, as mentioned earlier, Maestro Blomstedt conducted with small movements of his wrists and fingers. In the second half, he was back in baton mode, making cheerful stiff-armed gestures that San Francisco audiences will recognize.
Sir Adrian Boult, who cared a lot about rhythm and forward motion, used to like to listen to other conductors on the radio and comment about them. Listening to Friday’s performance, no doubt he would have said, as he often did: “I can hear the man’s elbow!”