Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in D minor last appeared on a Philadelphia Orchestra subscription program in April 1958. Rudolf Serkin served as soloist, under Eugene Ormandy’s baton. Tickets could be had for a couple dollars. It costs considerably more to hear Herbert Blomstedt and Lise de la Salle perform it now, over a half-century later, but their rendition was worth every extra cent.

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

It remains a mystery to me why this charming yet meaningful work is so often ignored. It is a gift to the audience, the orchestra that plays it and especially to the soloist who takes center stage. Mendelssohn deserves most of the credit for couching some seriously intriguing musical thought within a structure that might seem outwardly elegant, if not profound. The piano bounds into the piece far sooner than expected, with agitated staccati that gives way to a virtuoso theme brimming with contrasting colors. The mood turns buoyant and playful in the second movement, before once again growing confrontational in the third. Throughout, the orchestral writing matches the solo line, with strong individual voices making themselves heard, then joining as a collective whole to express moods ranging from sorrow to bliss.

De la Salle’s graceful sense of legato, generous (but not overindulgent) deployment of rubato and easy partnership with Blomstedt made her an ideal soloist. Her sound is large and rich, a compliment to the expansive Philadelphia strings, yet as focused and articulate as a chamber musician when called for. At a time when so many soloists seem to bound forward with little consideration for their orchestral partners, she remained attentive to Blomstedt’s cues, varying her dynamics and tempo to match his intentions. In turn, Blomstedt delivered a reading of the score notable for its levity and limberness, with gorgeous contributions from the woodwind section. By placing the first and second violins on opposite sides of the piano, with the violas and low strings directly in front of the podium, he also created an enveloping string sound.

Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique occupied the majority of the concert. An early experiment in orchestral narrative writing – or “program music”, to borrow Liszt’s term – it depicts the terrifying experience of an opium trip gone awry. The 92-year-old Blomstedt, whose devout Seventh-Day Adventist faith advocates clean living and vegetarianism, might seem an unlikely candidate to render such an account. Yet I’ve rarely heard this warhorse treated so thoughtfully, with a finely wrought contrast between the ecstatic and petrifying, and a March to the Scaffold that held all the horror of impending death. The teeming musicians handled the March and the Witches’ Sabbath with vigorous brio, but it felt even more complete for the sensitive, piquant depiction of the preceding Scène aux champs. It was the calm before the storm.