As Herbert Blomstedt held up his right hand to signal the end of his somber, generally static performance of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, he began to collapse, followed by an audible gasp from the audience, and was saved from a potentially tragic fall by the concertmaster. It was the only moment at which the 94-year old conductor had not been in control the entire evening. Known for also standing throughout his meticulous rehearsals, as demanding as a 90-minute concert and planned to the minute, he had successfully shepherded the Vienna Philharmonic through the main program he and the orchestra will be touring to Luxembourg, Bonn, Ghent, Lucerne, Amsterdam and Prague.

Herbert Blomstedt and the Vienna Philharmonic at Grafenegg
© Elisabeth Schwarz

And while the same qualities which had been evident the Sunday before, when he and the VPO had played Honegger and Brahms at the Salzburg Festival, it had been less physically exuberant in the more claustrophobic, if more glamorous, confines of the Großes Festspielhaus, and so it was a pleasure to hear them in the open spaces of Grafenegg's Wolkenturm where the conductor's lapidarian concerns were folded into a deeply-invested nonagenarian's view of music he has been performing for nearly seven decades.

In fact, the speeds Blomstedt took for Schubert's “Unfinished” Symphony were similar to his recording with the San Francisco Symphony in the mid 1990s. He took a comfortable strolling tempo for the Allegro con moderato, paying special attention to introductory and transitional passages, with lots of light, subtle colors and long-lined phrasing. Given the post-pandemic climate and the conductor's gravity, Blomstedt might have almost come to a grand pause during the repeat, but in doing so he seemed to have been both affected by – and speaking to – many of eternal issues of the heart and soul that have sprung up during the time of covid.

© Alexander Haiden

The orchestra's sound production was totally unforced in the superb Wolkenturm acoustics, with its warm, powerful, slightly tubby bass, and the beautifully in tune if carefully-plotted cello and double bass pizzicatos. Blomstedt managed to space out and isolate the first movement's mysteries without actually being slower and then came very close to a true Andante con moto for the second movement, studded with magical clarinet and oboe solos, understated and subtly phrased, set into the chamber music intimacy of the transparent strings.

Blomstedt opened Bruckner's Fourth tentatively but by the first big tutti was firing on all cylinders, if slowly and circumspectly, with the cellos broad, deliberate and eloquent, and a continual sense that energy was being conserved for only the most important climaxes. The great surging of the violas halfway through lacked thrills but was played so beautifully that it hardly mattered. In the Andante, the violas were again exquisite in their tawny timbre and the immaculate skills with which they shaped their phrasing, but the lack of movement across the two vast themes seemed flecked, as similar slow-moving passages in the Unfinished had been, with flecks of Webern. The wonderful Vienna brass sat low and plush on their big climactic passages, lacking only what a friend calls the ultimate in “Fafner action”, and the endless expansions, compressions and rejuvenating restarts inspired and warmed the audience on the cool summer night.