Programming Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E flat major and Bruckner’s Fourth is an interesting and clever juxtaposition. Both symphonies marked a new stage in their respective composers’ musical career. The 39th was dashed off at rapid pace by the beleagured Mozart in June 1788 – Nos. 40 and 41 followed in quick succession – and together with these, thought to be part of a proposed triptych, they show an evolution in Mozart’s symphonic writing. No. 39 is by far the most gentle of these; lacking the bombast and scale of its sequels, it is an insinuating, mellifluous piece that evolves from classic French overture into a work of striking thematic innovation, whose final movement hints at what Beethoven would come to develop.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin U.K. Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin U.K. Lengemann

Bruckner’s Fourth was the first of the composer's symphonies to enter the regular repertory. Given by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter in 1881, it was warmly received (Bruckner famously bought Richter a drink for his performance) but suffers from that quintessentially Brucknerian feature – vast and unhelpful editing at the behest of students and friends who thought they knew better than the composer how to make the piece a success. The Philharmonia chose the 1886 version which has the Hunting Scherzo, a distinct advantage of this revision. The so-called “Romantic” Symphony makes its influences clear – Wagner, of course, inescapably so, but in the certain elements of the brass, Weber springs heavily to mind.

Conducting the Philharmonia, the very sprightly 88 year-old Herbert Blomstedt, in a rare UK appearance, has excellent Bruckner credentials and did not disappoint. Conducting both works entirely from memory, his account of Bruckner was one that drew attention to the very structure of the work. His style was very much in the broad strokes on canvas line, avoiding the micro-managerial manner that focuses on the moment at the expense of the greater work. His choice of tempi was consistently spot on, clearly observing Bruckner’s instructions “Nicht zu schnell”, but maintaining an appropriate impetus.

The only real issue with this performance was in the brass. Bruckner is uncompromising in his writing for this section: flaws are laid absolutely bare and there were some in this performance. That glorious solo horn opening suffered from a fluffed first note and there were times, particularly in the first and third movements, when it seemed like the players were struggling. Elsewhere, perhaps a degree of enthusiastic playing overbalanced the delicate relationship with the rest of the orchestra to a point of inaudibility. Generally though, they were on decent form and rose magnificently in the final movement. The strings were thrilling throughout, showing nuanced playing of high calibre in the second movement. The woodwinds, particularly at that marvellous moment of flute and horn intercourse, were on excellent form. Lyrical playing and a spacious reading delivered a pretty fine performance.

The Mozart that opened the concert was a splendid amuse-bouche that provided an ideal balance to the rich majesty of Blomstedt’s Bruckner, but generally saw him take the same approach – a focus on the whole than the moment at hand. I felt again that Blomstedt was more than aware of the work’s place in the history of the symphony and drew attention both to the elements that looked back to Haydn and beyond, as well as to the almost proto-Romantic aspects. A decisively grand opening – the dotted rhythm was pounded – opened into a brisk Allegro that occasionally bordered on the business-like, but generally had a welcome richness. Woodwinds were ever so slightly dry at the beginning, but this issue diminished without too much delay, nor too much distraction. The orchestra was at its best in the Trio, creating a wonderful, almost pastoral sound that was apt when heard in juxtaposition with similar pastoral aspects in the Bruckner. In the final movement, Blomstedt took the orchestra at a gallop with a light and easy touch that led to a well-judged punch in the finale.

Blomstedt’s preference in both works for hand over baton indicates well his approach to the concert – a wide, spacious reading of both pieces and a preference for shaping rather than controlling. One left the hall feeling grateful to this veteran conductor for sharing his experience in these works.