Alchemists were wrong. The recipe for the most precious of metals is simple: Mozart, plus Herbert Blomstedt, plus the Boston Symphony. The ninety-year-old maestro returned to Symphony Hall to lead three Mozart symphonies – no. 34, no. 36 “Linz” and no. 41 “Jupiter” – all in the golden glow of the celebratory and jovial key of C major.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Besides a common key, these three symphonies share the festive and martial qualities of the “trumpet symphony” popular in Austria, the same complement of instruments (with the addition of a flute in no. 41) and the imprints of the Italian and French styles the much-travelled Mozart absorbed and made his own. The “Linz” and “Jupiter” further benefit from Mozart’s familiarity with the Haydn symphonies, both Joseph’s and Michael’s. They all also mark stages in the genre’s evolution from a negligible table-setter, subordinate to the more substantial concerto, to a composition rich in contrasts and emotions and worthy of attention.

Blomstedt used the same small orchestra for no. 34 and no. 36, expanding the first and second violins after intermission for the “Jupiter”. Second violins were to his right with the violas next and the two trumpets isolated behind them near the wall. The cellos were next to the first violins with the two horns, two oboes and two bassoons in a line in front of the podium. The three double basses were behind the first violins and the timpani center against the back wall. The resulting clarity highlighted the unique anatomy of each symphony and Mozartean touches like the frequent banter between violins and winds, the interplay between the divided violins and between the violas and second violins, and the expressive use of divided violas in the Andante of no. 34. Blomstedt took all the repeats in all three symphonies and conducted from memory, never opening the score on the stand during the first half and not even bothering to have one put out after intermission.

He also conducted without a baton, molding phrases with cupped hands and fluttering fingers, moving mostly from the wrist and close to the body just above his shoulders, smiling often as he turned to one section or another. Economical gestures and a light touch yielded a bounty of warm colors, a range of dynamics and accents, and coaxed dancing rhythms and arioso melodies. No. 34 played exuberantly, like a sparkling, three-movement opera buffa without words – a dreamy, lilting Andante for strings as the soprano’s lament. The “Linz” was more troubled, a play of light and dark. It began slowly and ceremonially before relaxing into the introspective main theme with its shift to martial airs and fanfares. The Andante’s siciliano sounded more like a lament than a dance, while the following minuet had a courtly and reserved hauteur. The Presto finally swept away the clouds but not without effort. 

The confounding of dance and song in the second movement of the “Linz” continues in the “Jupiter”, a symphony which looks backward to the various traditions and influences Mozart absorbed and forward through his own unique synthesis to a new symphonic form which transcends them. The symphony as a whole is operatic in its richness, complexity and abundance of song-like melodies. Mozart even quotes an aria he wrote several months earlier for Francesco Albertarelli, the basso who sang the title role at the Vienna première of Don Giovanni, to interpolate into a production of Pasquale Anfossi’s Le gelosie fortunate. The second movement, though marked Andante cantabile, is a sarabande, a dance which Mozart transforms into an aria. Blomstedt had the sarabande singing a melting cantabile plaint. The minuet’s Allegretto was more deliberate than most, danceable but taking on a peacock strut of self-satisfaction in contrast to no. 36’s temperate demeanor. Overall his performance was rhythmically lithe and alert; Beethovenian in its gravity, Mozartean in its grace and exuberance. The final movement with its intricate, fugal treatment of five of the six themes introduced earlier in a cascade of invention was exhilarating.

All three symphonies were imbued with the same youthful vigor, warmth, and mastery born of experience and familiarity, but each stood alone in all its remarkable individuality.