From the stalls, the audience’s view of Herbert Blomstedt is usually his back, tails flapping, perhaps a twinkling sideways glance across to the violins. One advantage to watching concert streams is “conductor cam” where we can see what the orchestra sees. With Blomstedt it is a man who, at the venerable age of 93, still clearly loves what he does. The Swedish maestro has been busy conducting around Europe in recent weeks, and we spoke – well, he sang quite a bit too – after he arrived in Munich for a benefit concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Herbert Blomstedt in rehearsal in Munich
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

“Music keeps me young. I have a great curiosity and in that way I am still like a child. I have learnt a little bit over the years but most of all I’ve learnt that I know far too little. And being curious can mean exploring the same work 200 times. I can get excited each time I come back to a symphony like Schubert’s C major. Life is interesting. Every performance we do, even when it’s quite successful, I never think I have reached a solution. Next time we play it, we’ll discover other things.”

One thing I’ve often noticed is that although Blomstedt usually has a score on his stand, it invariably stays closed. Perhaps this goes back to his time studying with Igor Markevitch in the early 1950s. “He taught us how important it was to analyse the score,” Blomstedt recalls. “He didn’t allow any of his students to have the score in front of them when they conducted. You had to study it and know it completely before you went out there. Your eyes shouldn’t be buried in the score. Your hands shouldn’t be turning pages. You had to look and direct the orchestra. That was quite demanding,” he reflects, before modestly adding, “but it paid off.” 

That analytical approach is still paying dividends seven decades on. Even when revisiting a familiar score like Schubert’s “Great”, which he recently conducted in Stockholm and Hamburg and again in Munich this week], he’s still discovering new things. He cites an example. “Only last week I noticed something I’d never noticed before. I keep the end of the first movement in tempo – and when we started the second movement I realised it is exactly the same beat! So if you take a big ritardando at the end of the first [here Blomstedt sings the closing bars slowly, grandly], it bears no relation to the next movement at all. I think Schubert was very aware of this, because in all his other symphonies there is also a clear tempo relation between all of the movements. It took me 66 years to discover this!!” 

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Bavarian RSO
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

He describes the “Great” like “a Wanderer Fantasy for orchestra”. What, I wonder, makes it such a great symphony? Is it the “heavenly length” that Robert Schumann noted? “The length in minutes is part of the inner greatness,” he begins. “Take the main theme of the finale, he simply repeats it so many times, with so many colours and different dynamics and different instrumentations. Or the Trio, which in usual symphonic Scherzos would be the shortest part of the whole symphony – a little vacation from the Scherzo proper. Here, the Trio is an enormous structure, as long as the Scherzo, with the woodwinds leading all the time. And of course he repeats the Trio – you have to take the repeats, just like the dance movements of Baroque times.”

Revisiting the score brings new revelations, particularly with new editions. “There is a decrescendo in the trombones in the first movement – it was not in the old score, where they played it four times with the same dynamics – but the decrescendo is there very clearly in the autograph and through this decrescendo you reach a low point, dynamically, that is very helpful in building up the long crescendo that comes afterwards. I cannot help thinking of Bruckner who loved his long crescendos, but his diminuendos are often over in half a second!”  

Blomstedt explains that Brahms was the editor of the first complete edition of Schubert symphonies. “The ethics of editing in 1880 were not the same as they are today! In the Fourth Symphony, Brahms even added two bars of his own that he thought were necessary for the balance! And he didn’t tell anybody. It wasn’t discovered until much later!  

Blomstedt conducts the Royal Concertgebouw in Brahms' Third Symphony

“We now know that the first movement was marked alla breve [two beats to the bar] but in the 1880s it was published as 4/4 so Brahms’ editing has coloured the playing for 150 years! But playing it alla breve solves one of the most difficult problems of interpretation which is the transition from the introduction into the Allegro – if you start alla breve, the transition is very natural. And at the end of the first movement, when the initial theme returns, all of my ancestors – great conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler – they slowed down to imitate the introduction. That was considered the way to do it. It was the way I did it when I was younger. But the new edition doesn’t indicate a ritardando or anything. It must be played in the new tempo. Anyone not familiar with these new sources would think we are crazy and not following Schubert’s intentions.” [Blomstedt sings the main theme very slowly] “It can certainly be done very beautifully. It’s like Bach – you cannot destroy Bach playing it at a slow tempo, it’s just another Bach that we don’t consider the original.” 

Performance practices have changed much during Blomstedt’s career, yet he was pretty much at the forefront of historically informed practice. “I studied as a musicologist at the University of Uppsala and that coloured my way of looking at the music. I remember hearing in Stockholm (1950 perhaps) a concert by Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic. He started the programme with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 and he played it with about 70 string players, including nine double basses! And such a slow tempo! [sings again] It was very impressive in its way. But as a rebellious music student, I thought that was not the way to play Bach! There was no intermission and after that they played Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony for which one of the double bass players left the platform and returned with a tuba. So they played the Bruckner symphony with eight double basses, and the Bach with nine!! It was a wonderful concert, by the way – you have to weigh the pros and cons – but I was convinced I would never play Bach like that.

Herbert Blomstedt
© J M Pietsch

“My debut programme as a conductor in Stockholm started with Bach, the Second Orchestral Suite, with four first violins and four seconds on the opposite side of the platform – this was quite revolutionary in 1950s Stockholm. Since then, we’ve had marvellous developments with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner. When I was music director of the Gewandhausorchester I was very conscientious to invite every year at least two of these Baroque specialists because the orchestra played Bach cantatas every Sunday in the Thomaskirche and they had to learn this style of playing. The way they play Bach today is a great joy – on modern instruments, of course, but the way they play is miles away from what it was 50 years ago.”

Apart from Leipzig, Blomstedt has had long associations with many of the world’s great orchestras, from Dresden and Vienna to San Francisco. Have orchestras lost their aural identity? Blomstedt sadly agrees. “There are exceptions, such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Dresden; these orchestras have not only a special pride in their traditions but also a special way of attaching new players. In Vienna, practically all the players come from Austria, well from Vienna itself, and they are students of former players of the Vienna Philharmonic so they pass on their performing traditions. In Dresden it was the same when I was there in the 70s and 80s because East Germany was a locked country, behind the Iron Curtain. Their sound is very much a function of how they listen to each other – and Dresden, being an opera orchestra, they do that to perfection.

“But the standard of orchestral playing today is much better than it was 50 years ago. They are formidable ‘machines’ if I may use that expression, not in a negative way, but they can deliver at speed and players starting today have to be expert in at least ten different styles!” 

Herbert Blomstedt in rehearsal in Munich
© BR | Astrid Ackermann

What of today’s young conductors? Blomstedt confesses he doesn’t get to see many as his schedule (in a normal year) includes 80-90 concerts of his own. He expresses admiration for Gustavo Dudamel and the work he did with El Sistema in Venezuela. And Klaus Mäkelä has caught his eye: “He’s very young, but I’ve seen him conduct and he looks very promising, not flamboyant at all but a wonderful, serious musician. So many of them come from Finland – there’s also Santtu-Mathias Rouvali who I saw in Gothenburg, and he’s enormously talented.  

“Success doesn’t make things easy. Not everyone has the backbone to say no when they get a wonderful invitation. For the development of an artistic personality you need time and interest in a broad spectrum of things.” 

As well as Markevitch, Blomstedt also studied – briefly – with Leonard Bernstein. I suggest they would have been quite different experiences. “Bernstein was the greater musician and a fantastic personality. Technically I didn’t really learn anything from him, but I think I learned a lot from him anyhow: the freedom he had, the spontaneity of his music-making and the wealth of ideas he had, that was a great inspiration. He helped me to loosen up!”

A 90th birthday tribute from the Berlin Philharmonic

Blomstedt reflects on the experience of conducting in halls without audiences. “I think these concerts were a great emotional experience for the orchestra. The Swedish RSO played extraordinarily in Stockholm – Daniel Harding has done wonderful work with them. Just ten first violins and the trombones, well I’ve never heard such trombones since I was in Dresden. Transformational. 

“In Hamburg it was the same – the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester played the Schubert magnificently. And ten seconds after the end – there was no public, of course – the orchestra just burst into emotional applause, thrilled to be able to play this music. We would love to have the public back, but you have to do what you can with the means you have.”

A 90th birthday tribute from the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester

At 93, Blomstedt shows few signs of actually slowing down. Watching a Zoom discussion conducted by Alan Gilbert in May, the Swede revealed he was spending lockdown studying new scores. He has plans to record a new series with the Gewandhaus pairing Schubert symphonies with those by his contemporary, Franz Berwald. He was also scheduled to play Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang with the Bavarian RSO. “I have learnt to love this work greatly. I didn’t used to think it was so good. Mendelssohn was critical of it himself. We planned to do this with Bruckner’s Te Deum – two works of praise, one Catholic and one Protestant – a wonderful programme. Of course, when Corona came we couldn’t do it. But the BRSO is a wonderful orchestra and they proposed Schubert’s C major. So I got the idea to start with two psalms by Edvard Grieg. I only got to know them four or five years ago and I am completely transfixed by this music. One of Grieg’s best works. He was not religious at all – yet these are some of the most religiously profound and inspired works I know. This Schubert symphony and these Grieg psalms are just what people need today in these very tense times. It gives us hope and something to live for.” 

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the BRSO's benefit concert in aid of the SZ Advent calendar on Friday 18th December.