Visits to London by Herbert Blomstedt, invariably to conduct some meaty Teutonic symphony, remain one of the highlights of an orchestra’s season. Over the last fifteen years or so, Blomstedt has established a fruitful relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra, whose players clearly respond well to this veteran maestro; that rapport was on clear display in Blomstedt’s return to the Royal Festival Hall in a programme of Bruckner and Mozart.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Philharmonia
© Tom Howard

The length of the Bruckner rendered any appetiser to the concert impractical and so we were plunged straight into Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major of 1786 one of only two of Mozart’s piano concertos written in that key. Having seen Figaro – which Mozart was writing at the same time as the piano concerto – just the other day, that tendency to linger and repeat on phrases in an operatic way was quite clear, but Blomstedt and pianist Maria João Pires gave a rendition that had hints of Beethoven as well as of contemporary Mozart. The lightness in orchestral sweep that one often catches in Mozart had a darker, heavy texture, while Pires, showing that characteristic clarity of tone and definition, gave a deeply classical and daringly traditional performance, foregoing mannered playing in favour of a clean, muscular approach, reflective in the first movement without being overly introspective. Pires captured the variety of moods of the second movement with nuance, her lighter touch here producing a sound almost luminous, reflected well against the softness of the woodwind. A headfirst dash into the third movement, barely a pause for breath at the end of the Adagio, gave an indication as to the flair with which Pires would take the runs, brisk and concise with each note clear. Despite an obvious appetite from the audience, Pires declined an encore.

Herbert Blomstedt, Maria João Pires and the Philharmonia
© Tom Howard

Blomstedt returned after the interval for Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 in E major which he conducted without seat or score, not a single concession in sight to the conductor’s near 95 years. What really stood out in Blomstedt’s reading of the pieces was his ability – particularly noticeable in the Allegro – to bring lightness to what can, on occasion, be a tremendously dense work. Blomstedt’s tempo in the first movement was well judged: relaxed, but not to the point of crawling. The glossy colour of the deeper strings was particularly noticeable here and flautist Samuel Coles – also excellent in the Mozart – gave his best performance here, with a rounded, ethereal sound that really cut through the weight of the piece.

Blomstedt’s approach to the Allegro finale was measured and benefited from a unity and lightness in the violins which balanced beautifully against the power of the brass. The famous Adagio, the composer’s lachrymose tribute to Wagner, was deftly played, the lines shapely and melodic, the barrages of brass on point. The Scherzo was a satisfying counter to this, where Blomstedt brought buoyancy and lightness, a sense of live excitement fighting to break free. The Finale was the only point at which the tempi seemed a touch slow in the first few minutes, though Blomstedt built the music into a characteristically glowing climax.