The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Herbert Blomstedt, conducting
Augustin Hadelich, violin
Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D, Opus 61 (1806)
Nielsen – Symphony No. 5, Opus 50 (1922)
Hats off to collaboration? Or, tell me it isn’t so!
I didn’t know quite which to think on April 20th, as I sat down to enjoy (and to some extent undergo) the Beethoven Violin Concerto in Davies Hall. In front of me, in the “tell me it isn’t so” department, was seated the San Francisco Symphony, or half of it anyway. No more than fifty players were onstage. I’ve encountered in recent years some fine old-school Beethoven from Herbert Blomstedt, featuring a hundred musicians—and loved it. So I hope this miserly bow to early music pedantry will turn out to have been an aberration. But sadly, today only Barenboim and Thielemann among famous conductors noticeably revel in the great thundering-herd Beethoven of old. The howitzers need reinforcement! This was Beethoven with three basses on stage…
On stage right you had Herbert Blomstedt, upright at 86 and dressed like a classic Swedish diplomat. Only missing were the striped pants. Blomstedt was without baton or podium this time, facing left towards his music stand. This made it easier to experience the courtly benevolence in his eye and enjoy the jaunty European bows from the waist with which he greeted instrumental entrances. Blomstedt has always seemed like a kindly professor in a Bergman movie: Wild Strawberries, perhaps. There is a bit of the naive schoolboy about him. Latterly in resplendent old age, he is benign and ambassadorial, a 19th century diplomat living in a gentlemanly world. But 21st century hip he is not!
And now…on stage left, representing the Millenial generation, looking far more modern, we had young Augustin Hadelich. Fortunately he appeared without wooden shoes, bare feet or sleeveless “jackets” (Davies Hall has witnessed all of these recently.) Just the energy of youth, which in this case was easily matched by his ageless collaborator.
That said, I found myself easily bored listening to the Beethoven Violin Concerto’s first movement. Despite smaller than usual forces, Blomstedt managed to achieve the sort of pliant execution from the orchestra which still eludes Michael Tilson Thomas. (MTT’s Beethoven is frequently flabby and never really quiet.) Even so, I find Beethoven’s music here painfully repetitious on the part of the orchestra. You could probably cut ten minutes from the first movement’s infernal chugging patterns without losing the thread….But I’m not here to attack the piece and destroy my reputation! Not entirely anyway!
More revealingly, there was also something slightly static and plodding about Hadelich as a violinist which contributed to the tedium—a tendency to begin each bar with exactly the same cautious weight of tone. Missing were light and shade, which can give the music greater fleetness, if the violinist knows what he is doing. The finger execution in the Finale’s cadenza was astonishingly quick and accurate, nonetheless. It is clear why Hadelich is making a big impression. The machine-like perfection of it was remarkable. But when he wasn’t going full tilt, there was a certain sameness to his approach to every phrase….I noted it in his otherwise well-delivered encore, the Andante from Bach’s Second Sonata.
No such quibbles attended a glorious performance of the Nielsen Fifth, which followed at intermission. In recent years Herbert Blomstedt has managed to broaden the humanity of his approach in Nielsen, without adopting slower tempos than before. He proceeds now just as quickly, but corners more slowly and pulls up to a stop less abruptly. His conducting has literally become less “uptight”.
The Nielsen Fifth represents a remarkable melding of warlike chaos and nobility of aspiration. A powerful human element inhabits every note. Unlike Sibelius’s music, this symphony always seems to be about you. The opening tremolo is not distant, as in, say, the Sibelius Sixth Symphony. It seems instead to be happening inside your mind, a terrifying wait for something. The woodwinds bore into your belly with their personal ominousness. As the symphony jars your bones with bells and marches off to war on the snare drum, it feels as though you are stuck inside the workings of a malevolent alarm clock. It makes a rag doll of you, and when the march has run its course, the music summons you with department store chimes to the beginning of the Brahmsian slow movement. There is something oddly warmhearted about the chimes…once again personal. And, far more significantly, there is no more noble music to be found than the grand arch of this movement, which soon follows them. Though Nielsen’s brass chorale progressions are repeatedly interrupted by a frenzied snare drum cadenza, they ultimately triumph in what has to be be one of the grandest, most shuddering climaxes in all of music. The victory is so hard won, that suspended harmonies in the wind-down from it fall into resolution with an ineffable sadness. The movement fades away plaintively, a lone voice in the universe.
The second part of the symphony begins more triumphantly, propelling itself with timpani rather than snare drums and opening out into a contented Brahmsian swagger that would suit the Academic Festival Overture. Even here, though, we find ourselves soon in a wild diabolical fugue on an out-of-control steed, almost like Franck’s Chasseur Maudit. And later, just before the work hammers away into its coda, we experience once again a fugue, this time of ineffable quietness and nostalgia. A few minutes later the symphony ends on a triumph of brass and a growling upswing leading to a mad dash on the timpani. But somehow those last moments of ethereal stillness are what stays with one. I was happy to see a young couple walk past me on the way out, profoundly moved. The girl looked at her companion: “That says it all…That just says it all…”