Herbert Blomstedt has said he often likes to program a Mozart concerto with a Bruckner symphony because both composers are a product of the same Austrian musical matrix, influenced by the traditions of church, theater and folk culture – and because they combine “simplicity and sophistication”. Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major and Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major are even closer cousins, with birdsong providing crucial thematic material.

Herbert Blomstedt, Martin Helmchen and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Aram Boghosian

Blomstedt opted for a reduced orchestra for the Mozart and the same seating for the entire program. Cellos and second violins swapped places; the violas faced him, with winds and then brass behind. Trumpets, trombones and tuba were aligned along the back starting at the stage left corner, with the percussion at the middle of the wall. This created a chamber-like clarity, balance and transparency audible even in the denser symphony. Martin Helmchen took his cue from what Blomstedt elicited from the orchestra, playing with crystalline precision and phrasing in long breaths like a singer. At times he seemed to levitate from the bench as if buoyed by the intricate runs uncoiling from the keyboard. Though colors sparkled, he muted them slightly in the chatter between piano and woodwinds in the first movement and darkened them considerably in the more nocturnal second. Blomstedt’s tempi always gave the piano room to breath but never detracted from the overall ebullience. The variations on a folkish tune in the Allegretto – reminiscent of Papageno’s music, 43 years in the future – flowed in an exhilarating cascade of invention building up to the finale’s operatic Presto.

Herbert Blomstedt
© Aram Boghosian

Blomstedt conducted the Mozart without a podium and, as tall as he is, was completely hidden by the piano’s lid. Bruckner found him back on a podium and with a score he never opened on the stand. The score was American musicologist Benjamin Korstvedt’s 2018 critical edition of Bruckner’s 1881 revision of the Fourth, dedicated to Blomstedt himself. On a first hearing, it is obvious various thickets have been pruned back to more clearly reveal the symphony’s architecture. The closing bars likely surprised avid Brucknerites the most: gone was the return of the horn call which opened the symphony, and only the insistent triplets from the brass choir prevailed to drive the finale, which nevertheless remained profoundly cathartic. With quiet concentration and minimal gestures, Blomstedt built a magisterial reading as streamlined in texture and tempi as the edition he chose. The sudden shifts from forte to pianissimo and vice versa were so fluid and natural, they created a hypnotic sense of eternity in which even the hunting horns and folkish inflections of the more rustic Scherzo didn’t seem out of place. The whole performance was a master class in eliciting more with less.

The orchestra refused to rise and applauded all smiles when the standing crowd called Blomstedt back for the fifth time. He is booked through the Bruckner bicentennial in 2024. Let’s hope Symphony Hall and Tanglewood remain a part of that coming itinerary.