Herbert Blomstedt shares a long affiliation with Zurich’s fine Tonhalle Orchestra, and recently returned to conduct it in an inspired programme of works by Mozart and Bruckner.

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Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin U.K. Lengemann

Mozart’s Symphony no. 34 in C major was the first of Mozart’s symphonies to feature the “fanfares and flourishes” typical of the festival symphony genre. Fairly simple in their own right, their interweaving and overlapping attest to a sophisticated way of development. Scored for two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, two horns and strings, the symphony’s fanfare opening introduces elements that recur in the entire work: shifts from the major into the minor key and back, jolting one’s attention with what seems an emphatic “listen to me!”

In the first movement, the bassoons injected a particularly mellow element, while the horns added almost cinematographic drama to the triumphal ending. The second movement, the strings’ melodic sotto voce repeats and a light-hearted lyricism is a kind of innocence personified. Blomstedt’s was a modest, if long and lanky, presence, bent slightly forward, like Washington Irving’s’ description of Icabod Crane. Conducting without a score, he used relatively modest gestures. In the third and final movement, the orchestra seemed entirely at ease working its way with him through a fresh landscape of fast-paced themes, one strung up after the other in what are considered the most “theatrical” segments of the symphony, and even include a kind of festive tarantella. In a Baroque-sized configuration, the Tonhalle Orchestra’s two superb oboists, Simon Fuchs and Isaac Duarte, added particular pep and momentum to the neatly measured performance.

After the interval, the orchestra expanded to some 80 players for Bruckner’s colourful Symphony no. 4 in E flat major. Bruckner himself was to call it the “Romantic”, which, however, was likely to suggest its affinity to the literary genre of medieval romance more than to the concept of romantic love. The work was premiered in Vienna under Hans Richter to great acclaim in 1881, but underwent subsequent revisions. Here at the Maag, the audience heard the second of those versions (1878/80), which, in turn, were published in a new edition last year.

Introduced with a call motif by a sublime horn, the symphony is marked by a kind of luminous, sometimes even bombastic jubilation. That mood regularly alternates, and is clearly tempered both by the bleak funeral-like march in the second movement, and the explosive dynamics of the finale. Again working without a score, here for the full 70-plus minutes of what is often called the most popular of the Bruckner symphonies, Maestro Blomstedt was more animated than before the interval. At 92, while hardly athletic, he vigorously raised his shoulders to signal timpani cues, and seemed to invite everything from the playful to the explosive simply by moving his wrists and hands. Taking spirited applause at the end of the evening, he was quick to credit the achievements of the soloists demonstratively and personally, as if he deserved little of the credit, which was both humbling and highly sympathetic. In short, this was a refreshing and highly accomplished performance.