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Blomstedt returns to SFS with a second program of concerto-symphony contrasts

Silhouette of Bruckner arriving in heaven, where he is greeted by Liszt, Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach (among others)
Silhouette of Bruckner arriving in heaven, where he is greeted by Liszt, Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach (among others)
by Otto Böhler, from Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt returned to Davies Symphony Hall to present the second of the two programs he prepared for his annual visit to the SFS podium. As was the case last week, the program consisted of only two compositions, a concerto followed by a symphony with an intervening intermission. Once again these two selections contrasted sharply, providing another exciting experience for the attentive listener. Furthermore, these compositions contrasted not only with each other but also with last week’s offerings.

Thus, while last week’s concerto was Carl Nielsen’s highly unconventional approach to a clarinet concerto (Opus 57), last night’s program began on the far more familiar ground of a piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Indeed, K. 467 in C major (often in danger of being played to death after having dominated the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan) was so familiar as to risk falling into the abyss of the routine. Fortunately, in the hands of Blomstedt and his soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, that risk was virtually non-existent.

K. 467, composed in Vienna in 1785, is a mature work, which elegantly balances the playfulness of the younger Mozart against the need to satisfy public taste with some sense of grandeur. The piano part holds up just as well on a modern concert grand as in the narrower dynamic scope of a period fortepiano; and Blomstedt homed in on just the right number of strings to match the strength of Ohlsson’s keyboard work. That grandeur is particularly reinforced by the inclusion of two trumpets and timpani, even if their parts are relatively understated.

Indeed, like the K. 491 concerto in C minor, which Till Fellner performed this past November with Semyon Bychkov conducting SFS, K. 467 is a model study in instrumental coloration, in which both winds and brass are always judiciously selected for both introducing and highlighting thematic material. Thus, while Ohlsson may have been there to take Mozart’s place, originally intended as the center of attention, Blomstedt had a keen sense of how the expressiveness of the piano always depended on the context in which it was embedded. That context was established as much by the elaborate interplay of the many various instrumental lines as by the imaginativeness of thematic material.

While this was all executed with elegant grace, there were also opportunities for the wit of that playful younger Mozart. Most amusing was the entrance of the piano in the final movement. That entrance follows a spritely account of the movement’s first theme, but the piano was anything but spritely. Instead, it seemed to still be lingering in the sublimity of the preceding Andante; and, only after a prolonged measure or two of that lingering, was Ohlsson willing to commit to the change of spirit. The cadenzas he performed last night were by Radu Lupu; and each return of this main theme is preceded by a cadenza-like flourish. That sense of lingering may have been Lupu’s idea, but it could just as easily have originated with Ohlsson’s own capacity for wit.

The symphony selection was Anton Bruckner’s fourth (“Romantic”) in E-flat major, differing as much from the Mozart concerto as from last week’s Schubert symphony selection. Blomstedt is clearly passionate about his Bruckner, and in November of 2012 I wrote about his recording of the full cycle of nine symphonies with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. He last performed this fourth symphony with SFS in April of 2003, and I have to credit him with providing me with the first opportunity to give Bruckner the serious listening he deserves.

As I have cultivated my appreciation of Bruckner, I have often dwelled on the extent that his ability to fill vastly prolonged durations owes more to a sense of landscape (or, as I have previously put it, “the slow-pan style of filmmaking”) than to the narrative qualities we find in Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler. It is easy enough to pick on the fact that Bruckner would work with limited materials, fanfares that never extend beyond the first four tones of the harmonic series and melodic lines limited to ascending or descending through a series of scale steps. A conductor like Blomstedt, however, recognizes the capacity for achieving maximal expressiveness from such minimal resources; and that is what makes listening to his Bruckner such a compelling experience.

Similarly, it is easy enough to observe dismissively that the crescendo is Bruckner’s only rhetorical device. While this may be true, Blomstedt realizes, like any good conductor, that not all crescendos are created equal. Within the vast scope of any single Bruckner movement, there must be an undisputed climax, with the climax of the final movement ruling over its three predecessors. Thus, while each individual crescendo involves a localized building of intensity, Blomstedt situates those moments within the much broader (in this case over an hour) context.

The result is a “Bruckner journey” that moves at its own deliberate pace but is always steadily advancing forward. The “ultimate” climax only arrives in the measures concluding the coda of the final movement. By this time the listener has experienced innumerable crescendo swells and three significant climaxes. One is hard pressed to believe that there is still an even more dominating peak to encounter, but the experience of being led up that final peak by Blomstedt is thoroughly exhilarating. My only regret is that those not there for the experience last night will have only one other opportunity, this coming Friday at 8 p.m.