At 91 years old, Herbert Blomstedt is a remarkable picture of vitality, handily ranking as one of last year’s busiest conductors. On Thursday evening he sprightly entered the Severance Hall stage to lead The Cleveland Orchestra in symphonies by Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Very much a bread-and-butter program, with both works being played as a recently as last season, Blomstedt offered these familiar scores thoughtful insights garnered from over six decades of conducting, brought to life through a lively chemistry with the orchestra.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin U.K. Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin U.K. Lengemann

A gentle dip opened Beethoven’s “Pastoral” with Blomstedt cultivating TCO’s innate ability to operate as a single organism. “Szene am Bach” was a movement of unencumbered bliss, a rare moment of the composer being truly at peace with the world. Matters proceeded as an extended paragraph, a long exhale with the principal winds making a particularly strong showing, and the unmistakable birdcalls were given with grace and charm. The following movement gave way to a halcyon abandon with a trio even more unbuttoned, including a folksy drone effect. Oboist Frank Rosenwein had a fine solo passage in lovely concert with a bassoon countermelody, although a horn passage fared somewhat fitful. Thunderous timpani marked the ensuing storm, given with a fiery fury in an otherwise subdued work. The mellow sounds of Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet broke the storm for a finale that proceeded as a hymn. Not one of Beethoven’s thornier conclusions, it was a fairly straightforward affair, a paean that embodied Blomstedt’s thoroughly agreeable, if ultimately somewhat middle-of-the-road, approach.

Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony was the more successful performance – and unlike last season’s traversal sans conductor, the present reading saw the orchestra in much tighter cohesion under Blomstedt’s keen guidance. The work began in solemn pathos, the fruits of a theme Mendelssohn had sketched while in Scotland amidst the ruins of the Holyrood Chapel, at the palace once home to Queen Mary – perhaps seen as something of a Scottish Ozymandias. Following the introductory material, Blomstedt scaled the dynamics back in dramatic effect. The movement seared with passions and unfurled craggy vistas of Romantic inspiration and fantasy.

The degree of “Scottishness” in the “Scottish Symphony is a matter of debate, given that the composer completed the work over a decade after his aforementioned excursion – and in spite of its numbering, it was in fact the last of the five symphonies to be completed. Yet Yusuf’s clarinet during the Vivace non troppo was patently Scottish in both rhythm and character, answered by jocular strings. The Adagio made for a lyrical interlude, a song without words, while a contrasting march theme almost presaged Bruckner in its grandeur and gravity. A stern vigour initiated the finale, leading to an unexpected and sudden shift to the sunny major. While some have found Mendelssohn’s coda perplexing and out of place – Klemperer even went so far as to compose his own tragic ending to the work – under Blomstedt’s hands the transition was seamless and purposeful, and the hearty applause that followed was as much a celebration of the evening’s music as an acknowledgement of the conductor’s remarkable and remarkably long career.