A ramble through the countryside followed by an opium-fuelled hallucination might sound an unusual way to spend an evening, but put Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique together and you have an effective concert pairing. Both works broke new ground in symphonic writing, both are in five movements and the later Berlioz was demonstrably influenced by the Beethoven, even to the extent of featuring birdsong and a thunderstorm like its forebear.

Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin UK Lengemann

One might expect a conductor of Herbert Blomstedt’s vintage – he is 92 this summer – to be ‘old school’ when it comes to performance practice and he did indeed field a full string section of some fifty musicians for this performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Yet he also deployed natural trumpets, and a separate set of smaller, period timpani which, beaten with hard sticks, made an appropriately thunderous contribution in the fourth movement. In all it led him to achieving a sensitively balanced sound from everyone concerned, especially between background and foreground layers of the music. Interpretatively, this rambler was no idler either, striding ahead at the “awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country”, as the first movement is subtitled. Even the Andante slow movement, Beethoven’s “scene by the brook”, conveyed constant movement – this time the suggestion of flowing water – through an overall sense of serenity, and capped by a silken trio of woodwind bird calls.

Blomstedt enjoyed extracting the last rustic ounce of rumbustiousness from the Scherzo, and there were some effective orchestral details in the storm, not least the composer’s use of low double basses to suggest the receding thunder. Finally, he brought nobility to Beethoven’s “happy, grateful feelings after the storm”, though the movement was tinged with what one could sense as a degree of nostalgia, even regret.

After the interval, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique seemed to take a little longer to catch fire, but when it did the results were incandescent. That may have been partly Berlioz’ aim, as he waits for the musical opium to take effect and steer his protagonist through the doomed pursuit of his ‘beloved’ via delirious waltzing, lonely countryside vistas, his own execution on the scaffold and finally getting caught up in a witches’ sabbath. All these scenes were deliciously and thrillingly painted by the Philharmonia’s musicians, inspired by Blomstedt’s gleeful eye and discreet, baton-less conducting. The spatial aspects in the “Scène aux champs” – off-stage oboe echoing on-stage cor anglais, the four timpanists and their distant rumbles of thunder – were effectively achieved and the March to the Scaffold almost swung as Blomstedt drew a jaunty sense of irony from its incessant tread. For the diabolical nightmare of the finale, he even managed to conduct in two directions at once, cueing the church bells through the stage door to his left while simultaneously directing the brass’ Dies irae to his right. The sheer impact of the closing bars pinned one to one’s seat. Here was one of those performances to remind us what a revolutionary sound world the symphony must have seemed to its first audiences in the early 1830s, composed as it was just three years after the death of Beethoven.