This concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt was part of several events in Brussels focusing on Austrian culture and coinciding with the Austrian presidency of the Council of the European Union. Incidentally, we weren’t treated to an all-Austrian programme, but rather to the current opener of the Viennese subscription concerts which combines a rarity from Swedish composer Franz Berwald and a well-known symphony from Antonin Dvořák, the magnificent Seventh. The Brussels Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar) was transformed into a tiny turf of Austrian Heimat for the occasion by the presence of its most illustrious cultural ambassador on stage, a large number of Austrian patrons attending, and even the unavoidable Mozartkugeln distributed in the interval.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin UK Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin UK Lengemann

Herbert Blomstedt, in splendid form at 91, paid tribute to his largely forgotten compatriot Franz Berwald, who died 150 years ago. Mostly misunderstood during his lifetime, Berwald’s music has never really gained firm ground in the international concert-hall circuit either. His Symphony no. 3 in C major, the “Singulière” from 1845 – premiered only 60 years later – had never been performed by the VPO before, yet undoubtedly deserves more than the occasional jubilee revival. The work boasts an original structure and taps into Swedish folklore, combining plenty of instrumental finesse with surprising harmonic shifts. But it would also benefit from a less traditional approach than we were given here.

Blomstedt has performed Berwald’s Third throughout his career and clearly knows it inside out. He conducted from memory in his idiosyncratic style, without baton, using rather leisurely tempi which emphasised beautiful dialogues between strings and woodwinds but also quickly allowed, in spite of the upbeat mood, a sense of monotony to sneak in. Perhaps Blomstedt gave his orchestra a bit too much credit. A slimmer formation than the massive string phalanxes used here, just as in the following Dvořák, might have been preferable. Although well-balanced in softer passages, with the excellent Viennese woodwinds adding piquant touches, Berwald’s sound became hefty and compact in climaxes. Arguably, several glitches in ensemble, especially in the antiphonal strings, could also have been avoided with a smaller orchestra. And surprisingly, at this level, leader Albena Danailova must have been having an off day, for her many slips were a recurrent feature this evening. In spite of Blomstedt’s sympathetic advocacy it nonetheless felt as if Berwald had more to say.

No complaints though about the performance of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor which was superb. The austere gravitas of the Allegro maestoso, emphasised by growling lower strings, was balanced by a wealth of orchestral colour and polyphonic contrast. Similarly, the turmoil of motifs, rhythms and moods in the finale was unravelled with great assurance towards the climactic resolution. While the energy of his conducting is obvious, Blomstedt hardly ever forces the issue or aims for effect. He takes care of the great lines and everything seems to develop naturally. He sometimes stresses details but not in a way they obscure the main ideas. Tempi are well chosen, never extreme, while the dynamic range is impressive yet never gets out of hand. As in the Berwald, however, ensemble wasn’t always as tight as could be and Blomstedt takes part of the blame for this, but the expressive power of Dvořák’s dark inspiration was undeniable.

A slight change of heart came in the Poco adagio, which surprisingly didn’t really start in a serene way and had Blomstedt upping the tension more than usual with his angular conducting. With Brahms more than merely looking over Dvořák’s shoulder – and even Wagner joining for a while – this is a stunningly crafted movement. The Viennese woodwinds shone in fruity harmonies, strings wove grainy textures and the horns bloomed, yet a massive climax topped by the brass made it clear that Blomstedt was not merely after prettiness. Elegance was kept for the Scherzo which danced with a Viennese lilt.

Greeted with a standing ovation Blomstedt readily thanked us with an Austrian encore, the Kaiser-Walzer from Johann Strauss II. Lightweight fare after Dvořák, yet brimming with such vitality and flair it sent us home with smiles on our faces.