Orchestre de Paris: Blomstedt and Mustonen in Stravinsky and Bruckner

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Igor Stravinsky and Anton Bruckner

Igor Stravinsky and Anton Bruckner

L’Orchestre de Paris
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Olli Mustonen, piano
Salle Pleyel, March 25, 2010

Igor Stravinsky, Concerto for Piano and Winds
Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 5

I’m always delighted to attend any concert under Herbert Blomstedt, who fortunately conducts the Boston Symphony quite often, both in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood, where he is especially valued, not only as a conductor, but as a teacher at the Tanglewood Music Center. At 82, after an impressive career as music director of several great orchestras, including the Dresdener Staatskapelle, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and the San Francisco Symphony (all of which have been received a good deal of attention on the Review of late…look soon for a review of the partially great Dresden Ring). After Steven Kruger most perceptively reviewed his Bruckner Sixth with the San Francisco Symphony, I was lucky enough to catch up with Maestro Blomstedt in Paris, where he conducted Bruckner’s pivotal Fifth Symphony. I was also fortunate to have a brief, informal chat with him after the performance, as well as with the brilliant soloist, Olli Mustonen, who is less well known than he should be, because, like Sibelius, he spends a good deal of his time in rural Finland, enjoying family life and composing. After this concert, he was looking forward to going home to his wife and his week-old son.

Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds is one of his great works and a special favorite of mine. I have no hesitation in saying that I found this performance, both from the soloist and the conductor, to have been truly amazing, the very finest performance I have ever heard of this work. Maestro Blomstedt’s Stravinsky programs at Tanglewood (with the TMC Orchestra a magnificent Firebird Suite and a complete Pulcinella, in which the very young players rather let him down) showed that he has a special affinity for his music. This performance was replete with overwhelming confidence and an ear-perfect sense for style. Blomstedt adopted rather a broad tempo for the introduction, faithful to its classical models. It was far from just going through the motions, as many performers do, but it showed a particular sense of the grandeur of the music and of its solemn, but colorful sonorities. This sheer sound of the wind chords was thrilling in the particular acoustic of the Salle Pleyel, which is bright, present, but spacious. There was plenty of acoustic space around each attack and harmony. Then Stravinsky’s inventive high spirits broke loose, and in the quick section that followed, both Blomstedt and Mustonen showed an unerring ear for sonority and almost super-human alertness to the sudden shifts and syncopated accents of the music. Anyone who loves Stravinsky would have been thrilled with the subtlety and nuance of Mustonen’s playing, which would have been impossible without a top-level technique, exceptional physical abilities, a profound knowledge of the score, and a deep affinity, as a composer, with Stravinsky’s sense of style and musical thinking. I’ll not miss one of Olli Mustonen’s performances unless it’s absolutely impossible to get there. At least he will be playing with the New York Philharmonic in March 2011 with Esa-Pekka Salonen in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Mustonen’s physical gestures as he plays follow, as one might expect from a composer, the shape of the movements themselves as forms, not as notes written on the stave. Hence his body language, far from distracting, is actually enlightening—and fascinating—as he anticipates the onset of a movement, savors a rest or a pause, and contemplates the completion of a phrase, section, movement, or work. Only Pierre Boulez equals Mustonen’s realization of the ideal of the composer as interpreter, and “interpretation” hardly does justice to what he was trying to achieve—with entire success. This was one of the few occasions on which I can say that a truly brilliant musical genius was at work.

Given the rapturous and lengthy applause for not only the Stravinsky but for Bruckner’s Fifth, I was surprised to hear Maestro Blomstedt’s reflections on the evening. He was above all concerned that Bruckner would be a hard sell in Paris, as he has found in the past, and, still seeking confirmation that the Paris audience had “gotten it.” Judging by what I saw and heard from my seat, there was no doubt of this. In retrospect, having heard Blomstedt’s Bruckner for other audiences, in other halls, and with other orchestras, I think I understand how he tailored his interpretation for this audience, although it was not at all untypical of his usual work and as faithful to the score as ever, in this case the latest Nowak edition, revised by Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs (2005). In general Blomstedt strives to knit whatever edition of a Bruckner symphony he chooses together, with not only a conviction in Bruckner’s sense of structure, which is elusive to some conductors, but an understanding of Bruckner’s idiosyncratic way of building form from phrases and progressions. The way Bruckner builds movements and symphonies from this gave and take between harmonies and motivic shapes is nowhere so evident as in the Fifth, and uncompromising, mountainous work, with fully developed, highly accomplished counterpoint, of which Bruckner was especially proud. Blomstedt set himself to these intellectually rigorous marvels with a mischievous smile, which showed his love for Bruckner’s argument and feeling, as well as his appreciation of the challenge in bringing it across to his audience. In this spirit he won the orchestra fully over to the task. Blomstedt faced it head on, producing the most consequent, well-balanced reading of Bruckner’s musical textures from the superb players of the Orchestre de Paris. The Salle Pleyel provides plenty of space around the players, as well as an immediate clarity, which is quite different from the sonorous, church-like cloud we heard in the Music Shed, when Blomstedt conducted his unforgettable Seventh. While the lower instruments of the orchestra sound rich and full of texture by themselves in the Salle Pleyel, they tend to recede in favor of the violins and trumpets in tutti passages. Blomstedt used this to good advantage in unveiling inner lines and harmonies.

It was obvious enough that the musicians could hear each other very well in the hall, and they were intent on making the most of it, with their own sensitive ear for each other’s playing. (Olli Mustonen later confirmed the musician-friendliness of the Salle Pleyel) This was as true for the strings as it was for the woodwinds and brass. Although it was clear that they don’t play this music all the time, their outstanding musicianship, attentiveness to each other, and devotion to Bruckner’s unfamiliar masterpiece, not to mention their conductor, produced a major statement of the symphony. (Apart from this, the Orchestre de Paris shone in the consistent sound of the different sections, the excellence of the winds—and the strings—and their loving attention to details, like the execution of pizzicato passages and trills. The shape of the movements, the organic transformations of the thematic material, the balance and clarity of the contrapuntal passages all made for a fully realized Bruckner Fifth. As splendid as the performance was throughout, I have to comment especially on the scherzo: it was a revelation to hear all its complexity and discursive imagination laid out before one in this way. As I mentioned, the audience, who had been rapt in silence throughout, responded with thunderous applause and many calls for Maestro Blomstedt to return to the podium. Whatever his doubts, Maestro Blomstedt had clearly achieved his goal of bringing Bruckner to the Parisians.

I should add that the audience was a manager’s dream: thoroughly mixed in age, including as many people in their early twenties, thirties, and forties, as the post-sixty generation. There were a lot of young people in evidence, in fact, who seemed to be unreservedly and joyously involved in this Austro-Russian palaver.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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