There are occasionally concerts where, as it is happening, one realizes that it is something special. Such was the case at the Blossom Music Center on 1st August, when Herbert Blomstedt conducted The Cleveland Orchestra in an all-Beethoven program. Garrick Ohlsson was the soloist in the Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, Op.58, followed by the Symphony no. 7 in A major, Op.92. At age 94, Blomstedt was an object lesson in the “less-is-more” art of conducting. I was seated toward the right in the Blossom pavilion, giving me a clear view of Blomstedt’s conducting. Ramrod straight on the podium, but sometimes almost dancing to the music, Blomstedt’s gestures were minuscule compared to many conductors. With the twitch of a finger, a twist of his wrist or a shaking fist, he elicited elegant phrasing and technical precision, and he demonstrated a lifetime’s experience in navigating Beethoven’s musical architecture. At the end of the 2021 season at Blossom, I predict this concert will be remembered as the best.

Herbert Blomstedt conducting The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Some scholars and critics consider Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto as the first Romantic concerto, breaking the Mozartian structure in duration and development. It was premiered on a marathon concert in 1806, with the composer himself as soloist, along with the first performances of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Choral Fantasy. The composer’s innovations reportedly dumbfounded the audience. That the piano is unaccompanied in the concerto’s first few measures was revolutionary. The orchestra then enters for an extended passage. Over 200 years later, Beethoven’s concerto continues to thrill and reward audiences and performers in its invention, especially in a performance as lively as this one.

Ohlsson is a frequent soloist with The Cleveland Orchestra, most recently heard in 2019 performing Busoni’s formidable Piano Concerto in C major, Op.39, with its fistfuls of massive chords and endless scales and arpeggios. But Ohlsson and Blomstedt seemed perfectly at ease with Beethoven’s comparatively chamber-size demands, in which clarity and lyricism trumped hammered virtuosity. The first movement cadenza was as well developed as a piano sonata movement. The second movement contrasted sharply dotted, “stabbing” orchestral gestures against introspective piano solos. The third movement rondo – a set of variations on the rondo theme – followed the second movement without pause. It was joyous and thrilling, with the soloist again breaking the Mozart model and playing until the very end.

After intermission (and the end of a cloudburst that began during the third movement of the concerto), Blomstedt led a radiant performance of Beethoven’s Seventh. He chose tempos that were just right for the music at hand but with flexibility of phrasing above the underlying pulse. The first movement Vivace never seemed rushed. The flute, oboe and clarinet principals proved outstanding soloists throughout. The momentum built to a commanding ending of the first movement, which flowed almost without pause into the second movement’s variations. Blomstedt’s attention to detail extended to the beautifully executed release of the movement’s last chord. The Scherzo was off to the races but always fully in control, observing Beethoven’s changes of mood. The heroic fourth movement was masterful in its pacing, building to a thunderous close. 

A standing ovation went on at length, with Blomstedt repeatedly returning to the stage. As the ovation continued, the members of the orchestra refused to stand, allowing Blomstedt the opportunity to have the spotlight deservedly to himself.