“It takes a long time to become young.” Herbert Blomstedt quoted Pablo Picasso in a fascinating Zoom chat with fellow conductor Alan Gilbert back in May. You may be forgiven for thinking that, at 92, Blomstedt would have taken the opportunity to put his feet up during the Covid-enforced period of concert inactivity, but no. Asked how he was filling his days, he replied that he was busy studying new scores. “I use every day as if I had a rehearsal tomorrow.” Thus, the maestro celebrated his 93rd birthday by returning to the podium with the Bamberg Symphony.

Herbert Blomstedt © BR Klassik
Herbert Blomstedt
© BR Klassik

Blomstedt was due to conduct Honegger’s Symphony no. 3, “Liturgique” a few times during the lockdown period, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in April and the NDR Elbphilharmonie in May. Third time lucky then, with this concert at the Joseph Keilberth Saal. The re-emergence of concert life has seen orchestras scaled back to chamber dimensions, with works like Metamorphosen and the Siegfried Idyll leading the way. Honegger’s Liturgique does not fit any sort of chamber template though. It is scored for a large orchestra, including triple woodwind and full brass sections, which unleash an eruption in the nervy Dies irae opening. Composed in 1945-6, the Liturgique is, in its way, as powerful an anti-war statement as Britten’s War Requiem, with each movement named after a liturgical text. 

Following his score closely – I wonder if this was one of those he was studying for the first time – Blomstedt drove the machine ostinato that seems to depict the chaos of war, the woodwinds and trumpets shrieking in alarm. De profundis clamavi, the second movement, opened with a moment of balm, Blomstedt moulding the music with his hands, but rumbling in the piano’s bass register presaged further emotional upheaval. The flutes excelled in what Honegger called his “bird theme” at the close. Blomstedt cued in the march-like tempo of the Dona nobis pacem carefully, a theme which motored on to a crushing, dissonant climax, which the Bamberg brass delivered robustly. But out of the rubble, a warm melody emerged, with solos for cello, piccolo and violin acting as the dove of peace, a renewal of hope and a musical message of recovery for our own times.

Bamberg Symphony brass © BR Klassik
Bamberg Symphony brass
© BR Klassik

After the interval Blomstedt could kick up his heels in one of his favourite symphonies, Brahms’ Fourth. Often wearing a broad smile, he injected plenty of forward momentum into the opening movement, although it never felt rushed. There was a glossy patina to the 42 strings, while the woodwinds were finely blended. The Andante moderato was genial and unforced, the Allegro giocoso was punchy and dainty by turns, Blomstedt at times using the tiniest of finger cues. The finest moment of the finale was the pearly flute solo, a moment of tranquility amid the passacaglia’s energy and bustle. 

About to leave the podium, Blomstedt noticed he’d forgotten something – a pocket score wrapped in a black cover. It had remained unopened. Old Johannes – who died only 30 years before Blomstedt was born – would surely be raising a glass of something in the celestial version of the Red Hedgehog.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

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