Veteran Swedish-American conductor Herbert Blomstedt made a return visit to Severance Hall this weekend in a relatively brief – only about 90 minutes – and highly enjoyable all-orchestral program with a very familiar symphony (Antonín Dvořák’s Seventh), as well as Franz Berwald’s rarely-performed Third Symphony.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin U.K. Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin U.K. Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt gives the onstage image of a kindly grandfather, tall, angular, smiling, with sparkling eyes. He conducted with just his hands in an idiosyncratic manner, sometimes caressing phrases, at other times slashing the air. Although there were well-worn copies of scores on his podium, he didn’t open them once. His common-sense artistry was completely evident in this fine concert.

19th century Swedish composer Franz Berwald’s Symphony no. 3 in C major (“Sinfonie singulière”) was a novelty; The Cleveland Orchestra had only performed it once before, in 1972, under the direction of former TCO resident conductor Louis Lane, who died aged 92 on February 15, and whose career, beginning as a protégé of George Szell, was memorialized in this week’s program book. Szell is famous as the orchestra’s European taskmaster in a relatively narrow range of repertoire; Lane brought breadth to that era’s programming, especially in giving local premières of major 20th century works and unfamiliar earlier works such as the Berwald symphony.

Berwald’s Third was not performed until after the composer’s death. Although his compositional output was large, like American composer and insurance executive Charles Ives, Berwald seems to have mostly made his living doing other things. Berwald’s symphony is quirky, with an abundance of short motivic passages piled on each other, developed and repeated, but never coalescing into true melodies. The cellos open the first movement with the first of many motives. There are adventurous harmonic shifts, and the music, while perhaps not profound, at least in this performance exuded gentleness and good humor.

The second movement combines an Adagio with a central scherzo-like section, finally returning to the Adagio at the end. The music is serene, but then suddenly sliced through by violent ascending violin scales. Berwald writes some tricky rhythms, and on a couple of occasions in the strings, there was some ensemble roughness in these passages. A stroke on the timpani sets the scherzo in motion. After Berwald plays that out, with a profusion of musical material, it runs out of steam, and we find ourselves back in the Adagio music, slightly truncated from its initial appearance. The Adagio was performed with supremely lyrical expression, with Blomstedt molding phrases with flexibility.

Although the symphony is in C major, the third and final movement (Presto) is mostly in C minor. It is violent, with extremes of mood and expression. Hints at melody (and C major) soon disintegrate, but C major finally asserts itself for a rousing ending. Blomstedt and The Cleveland Orchestra made the best possible case for this rarely performed work. It might never enter regular repertoire, but it might be worth revisiting sooner than 40 years.

Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor was a complete pleasure from beginning to end. Blomstedt led a robust performance, highlighting Dvořák’s supremely beautiful melodies, and, in the first movement, making the most of the ebb and flow of the phrases, a veritable river of Bohemian spirit.

The wind chorale, with its pizzicato string punctuation, opened the second movement serenely, before being developed, and giving plenty of opportunities for solo turns. The movement’s horn solo was especially beautiful. Blomstedt built the music to a big climax before letting it melt naturally back to its opening simplicity and gentleness.

The third movement scherzo, very much in D minor, flowed with a lilt, not in any way frenetic. The trio was more relaxed, in major, before returning to minor for the recapitulation of the scherzo music. The fourth movement showed a mastery of the “hesitations” in the music, with its various nods to the symphonies of Dvořák’s friend Johannes Brahms. The performance showed an inevitability through its development until the glorious ending. It may be that Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony is the more popular audience choice; but this Cleveland Orchestra performance was verification that his Seventh is the greater masterpiece.

Orchestral encores at Cleveland Orchestra concerts are rare. In this case, however, the rousing performance of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance, Op.46, no. 8 in G minor was a brilliant and welcome addition to the program, rounding out a beautifully played concert.