In recent weeks, there has been a parade of guest conductors on the New York’s Philharmonic podium, vying – openly or not – to occupy the soon to be available position as the orchestra’s Music Director. One maestro certainly stands out as a non-candidate: the venerable Herbert Blomstedt who, at 94, not only continues to maintain a very active international schedule, but also strives to shed a new light on more or less familiar corners of the repertoire.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

As expected for a performance dedicated to the people of Ukraine, Friday night’s subscription concert, in the Philharmonic’s temporary home at Alice Tully Hall, started with an emotional rendition (with both the orchestra and the public standing) of Mykhailo Verbytsky’s Ukrainian national anthem, the conductor prefacing it with just a few well-felt words. Extolling related sentiments – “the elemental will to live” (in Nielsen’s words) and the desire to “seize Fate by the throat” (Beethoven) – the evening’s two symphonies were a fitting response to today’s circumstances.

Irrespective of listeners' burdening familiarity with Beethoven's Fifth, Nielsen's Symphony no. 4The Inextinguishable is not well known to the New York Philharmonic's subscribers (the first performance was in 1970 and the latest eight years ago), hence the importance of the remarkable performance they witnessed here. For decades, Nielsen’s symphonic output has been near and dear to Blomstedt, as has been Scandinavian music in general. From the maelstrom-like energy displayed in the first bars to the grand, uplifting, very 19th-century final pages, Blomstedt focused on the unifying traits of a symphony played without breaks between movements. Keeping the whole in mind, he carefully maintained the balance between moments of abrupt rage and sudden tenderness while selecting appropriate tempi for each section. The timpani duelling in the finale was indeed an echo of the tonality collisions in the Allegro con brio. Listening to the repeated woodwind-intoned motifs in the third and last movements did rekindle memories of the second theme in the first one. At the same time, helped by contributions from the orchestra’s principal players, Blomstedt kept alive the identity of individual segments, some quite disconcerting: the build-up of anxiety in the middle section of the initial Allegro; the pastoral, almost Baroque quality of the Poco allegretto; the prolonged violins’ shriek at the beginning of the third movement, followed later by a seemingly out of the blue solo cello (Carter Brey) and an even more surprising contrapuntal development.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Nielsen learned from Beethoven that experiencing music is propelled forward by slowly building larger blocks of sound from elemental motifs and by exploring and ultimately resolving antagonisms between tonalities or rhythmic patterns. This was made clear by listening to Beethoven’s beloved Fifth Symphony after the interval. With his trademark modesty, conducting without a baton but with minimal, very expressive gestures, Blomstedt elicited from the Philharmonic players a clean and tense rendition, without any dynamic or rhythmical exaggerations, striking a wonderful balance between transparency and warmth. In an interview published on the occasion of the current series of performances, Blomstedt talked about objectivity, both the creator’s and the interpreter’s. In his view, Beethoven objectified his suffering, enabling his music “to represent the suffering of everyone”, not linking it to a single person or place. The interpreter should go back to what’s written in the original score, trying to eliminate the layers of meaning piled upon by “accepted” traditions gone awry. As in his Nielsen, Blomstedt let Beethoven’s music speak for itself. It would be good if more conductors would follow his example. 

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