What is it about Bruckner 8 and old men? They seem to go together like the proverbial horse-and-carriage. My first live Bruckner 8 was with Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia, albeit tarnished by some quite egregious cuts – the conductor claiming to know better than the composer – and I can look back on many other performances by equally elderly gentlemen, including Mravinsky, Celibidache, Wand and Haitink. And they each added something that eludes much younger interpreters.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Bamberg Symphony © Bamberg Symphony
Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Bamberg Symphony
© Bamberg Symphony

At 93 Herbert Blomstedt is a minor miracle. He needs seemingly little in terms of technique to make his wishes known: an index finger to cue in players or sections, a clutch of fingers to tickle and tease textures into life, gently waving hands to describe an arc of momentum, outstretched arms to signal maximum concentration, visible intakes of breath to prepare a sustained musical line, the eyes ever-vigilant, the face often suffused in joy and this mien reflected in the serene and assured playing of the Bamberg Symphony

In German-speaking countries the soubriquet of “the apocalyptic” is often appended to this, the longest of all Bruckner symphonies, suggesting a dark, portentous beast of a work, dressed in the funerary of the recently departed, revelling in a span of emotions that move from agony to ecstasy. Yet this was an astonishingly life-affirming view, beatitude celebrated in virtually every bar. Throughout, I was less conscious of the subterranean depths of gloom and despair from which this music can sometimes emerge and more aware of its airborne qualities. C minor has rarely sounded so devoid of anguish and so full of quietude.

The way in which Blomstedt moved with utter inexorability through these vast paragraphs was itself most impressive. There were none of those interpretative mannerisms of the this-is-where-I-can-make-my-mark variety to mar an overall sense of coherence. And yet, though there was no feeling that the walls of Jericho were about to come crashing down, there was no sense of stasis either, the score filled instead with flecks of instrumental colour and life-imbuing detail. At the start of the opening Allegro moderato the groans from the lower strings and an achingly plangent first oboe seemed initially to herald doom-laden orchestral drama. But it was as if Blomstedt heard Beethoven calling over his shoulder, “Nicht diese Töne!”

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Bamberg Symphony © Bamberg Symphony
Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Bamberg Symphony
© Bamberg Symphony

In the gentle tread of the Scherzo the whispering upper strings were like something Mendelssohnian straight from fairyland, the angelic flutes and celestial harps in the Trio adding moments of delicacy and refinement. Come the great Adagio it was as though all earthly burdens had been cast aside and the spirit was able to float free. But what ripples of life-enhancing energy Blomstedt secured from the strings and then the brass in that climactic ascent before the great cymbal-crash.

I suspect Blomstedt must have been re-reading the letter Bruckner sent to Felix Weingartner in 1891 in which (with the absence of comments about the slow movement) he provided keys to the musical inspiration: “Finale: at the time our emperor received the visit from the tsar in Olomouc; thus, strings: the Cossacks; brass: military music; trumpets: fanfare, as the majesties meet. In closing, all the themes, like the arrival of the king in Act 2 of Tannhäuser.” Blomstedt’s brass chorales glowed and the strings danced their way to the C major conclusion. 

One final thought. With just ten first violins and five basses (all socially-distanced), there was no sense of an under-powered string section. It takes a master-conductor to balance his musicians so expertly.

 

This performance was reviewed from the Medici TV live video stream.

*****