The Philadelphia Orchestra with Herbert Blomstedt and Garrick Ohlsson

Blomstedt illuminates Brahms

Herbert Blomstedt is a small man, 89 years old, with a kind expression and gentle manner. But when he conducts Brahms, as he did last weekend with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he unleashes all the power and tenderness pent up in the score, that inert leafbud just waiting to explode. With graceful, birdlike motions, his white hands caress the air, sans baton, and you, the audience, feel he is a conjuror -- but of the highest, most respectable sort: a shaman, a priest. The whole world, expressed in sound, comes tumbling out of an orchestra staged differently than usual, with celli in the center and second violins to the right. It is less a concert than a revelation.

Conductor Herbert Blomstedt. (Photo by J.M. Pietsch)

Sculpting sound

I have never been much of a Brahms fan, but perhaps I hadn’t found the right interpreter until now. This season the Philadelphia Orchestra is performing all four of Brahms’s symphonies, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra with delightful performances of numbers 1 and 2. Symphony No. 3 in F major is a captivating work in a class of its own. It begins with a shoutout in the brass, rises on the upward sweep of the notes F–A-flat–F, and blends sweetness and surprise in the second movement.

The third movement contains one of the most beloved melodies in the classical repertoire, known not just to music lovers but also to popular culture buffs (remember Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins in Goodbye Again or Frank Sinatra singing “Take my Love?”). In each phrase and measure, Blomstedt honors this music’s integrity, emphasizing tenderness over sentiment. He sculpts the sound forces at his command, here emphasizing a pizzicato in the bass, there releasing a silken clarinet. The oboe, played by Richard Woodhams, takes up the tune, its brightness slicing through the dark of the full orchestra. What a staggering effect, but not out of keeping with Blomstedt’s vision for this work – one that marries intelligence with feeling.

The symphony ends with a conversation between minor and major, optimism winning out, and a return to the opening movement’s shining F–A-flat–F. Throughout, Blomstedt never faltered, always fresh in his understanding and ability to elicit exactly the desired context or effect. The conductor, who celebrated his 30th anniversary leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, was born in the United States to Swedish parents and studied at Juilliard, in Stockholm, and in Uppsala. He is conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony and was music director of the NDR Symphony and Leipzig Gewandhaus, as well as chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden and many other posts in his long, distinguished career.

Piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson. (Photo by Kacper Pempel)
Piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson. (Photo by Kacper Pempel)

What I will remember most about his interpretation of Brahms’s Third was its lack of pomposity, the ability to express grandeur with nuance, and a deep understanding and irresistibly sincere enthusiasm.

Giving a gift

Fortunately for us, Blomstedt also led the first half of the concert in Mozart’s 25th Piano Concerto, in sunny C major, with soloist Garrick Ohlsson, one of the most celebrated American pianists of our time. While not the last of his works in this form, the C major concerto K. 503 is considered the last of the grand piano concertos by the Austrian master and is contemporary to the Prague Symphony K. 504.  

The concerto is scored for full orchestra, minus clarinets. Leading orchestral forces far mightier than those available in Mozart’s time, Blomstedt achieved a sound that was grand but not not overpowering, and respected the work’s classical character.

A familiar presence on Philadelphia concert stages, Ohlsson, who is highly regarded for his Chopin interpretations and overall mastery of the piano repertoire, brought a sure touch, lively intelligence, and pleasing tone. The first movement alone is a universe of musical sensation. Mozart invites us to share in everything he knows about music, from commanding our attention to beguiling us with a shy piano entrance to celestial tone painting. Mozart was one of Beethoven’s favorite composers, and perhaps the four-note motif of his Fifth Symphony can be traced to an appreciation of the first movement of this concerto, which flickers incandescently with its syncopated beat.

Ohlsson played the wonderful Brendel cadenza in the first movement, reminding us of the musical treasures we have lost because composers did not always write down the cadenzas they improvised for their works.

The second movement is not one of Mozart’s more melodic episodes, but holds its own as a serene and thoughtful respite, respecting the expanded capabilities of the piano of his day. In high spirits, Ohlsson played the energetic final movement with clarity, pleasure, and a bit of whimsy. Blomstedt tied up the strands of sound around him like the bow on a gift generously given to us by the composer and these performers.

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