It is perhaps de rigueur to remark upon Herbert Blomstedt’s unwavering vigor and vitality on the podium even as a nonagenarian, yet his Cleveland Orchestra performances showed the Swedish-American conductor in especially robust form, conquering the sprawling canvas of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. In addition to the composer’s characteristically protean, ambiguous beginnings, the Fifth stands out amongst Bruckner’s corpus from the onset in its inclusion of a slow introduction. A pizzicato gesture which bound much of the work together had the first word, played as mere whispers of what was to follow as a thin thread of melody began to coalesce, and brassy blasts introduced drama early and often. Nothing was haphazard under Blomstedt’s command: what would have meandered in lesser hands proceeded with direction and purpose. The orchestra’s reverence to Blomstedt was palpable, responding to him with rapt attention and in tight lockstep.

Herbert Blomsted
© Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Pointed articulations in the strings crafted arching melodic lines, and at the other end of the spectrum, the conductor did much to draw meaning out of the moments of silence that punctuated. The first movement’s development was of often violent unrest, but calmed by amber brass chorales. Blomstedt teased out the finest from a fine brass section, closing the movement in brass-heavy glory. The pizzicato gesture returned to begin the Adagio, enhanced by a sinuous oboe line from Frank Rosenwein. In due course, the gates opened for a lush paragraph in strings, giving one goosebumps as it resonated in the intimate acoustics of Severance Hall. That Bruckner would choose to cast the Scherzo in sonata form is certainly indicative of the grand scale in which he worked. A mutation of the slow movement theme carried matters with vigor. In a secondary theme of Ländler­-like inflections, Bruckner recalled his rural roots in the urbane context of a symphony, providing a lovely, delicate counter to the more muscular material, a contrast further heightened in the feathery trio.

The same material that began the work opened the finale, but with increasingly pronounced interjections in the clarinet from Afendi Yusuf. While innocuous at first, they signaled the vastly different direction we were headed. A reminiscence of the slow movement followed, much like Beethoven recalling what had come before in the finale of his Ninth Symphony, clearing the way for a fugue that exuded the severity of Bruckner’s Catholic faith. This remarkable fusing of fugue and sonata form seemed to take a cue from Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, as if Bruckner was tipping his hat to the great symphonists that preceded him.

Blomstedt served as a keen guide on this long journey of hard-earned victories, an ethos that perhaps maps on to the composer’s own biography wherein success rarely came with ease. Brass chorales punctuated the finale with enormous power, like an organ with all stops pulled bellowing through a mighty cathedral. With a harmonic progression that suggested the Dresden Amen, this material was answered by the strings in pious serenity. As the movement grew in complexity, fugue became double fugue, though at no detriment to the exacting clarity, with Blomstedt seemingly sculpting a monument out of blocks of granite, delivering the final moments with an extraordinary dramatic sweep.