Perhaps he keeps a portrait in his attic. Or perhaps he quaffs a magical elixir supplied by some Dulcamara-type figure. We do know he doesn't touch alcohol or coffee. But Herbert Blomstedt denies there's any secret to pulling off a punishing schedule as a nonagenarian conductor other than “I love music,” as he told The New York Times when he turned 90. “How could you deny being together with your loved one?” Now 91, he's as spry as ever, and as enamoured with music as ever if the evidence of this life-affirming Philharmonia concert was anything to go by.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin UK Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin UK Lengemann

The Philharmonia fielded 50 strings players in the “Eroica” Symphony. You might think big-band Beethoven under a 91-year old would sound rather Old School. Under Blomstedt, not a bit of it. Like Bernard Haitink, who reached his ninth decade last month, his performances of the classical repertoire have taken some account of period instrument performance practices: cleaner and swifter but without taking on any of its abrasive qualities other than, in Blomstedt's case, period timpani with hard sticks. There was no sense of autopilot in accounts of the “Eroica” or Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor, but performances powered by tremendous drive and intense curiosity.

Both scores remained firmly closed. As Blomstedt once recounted in an interview, this stems from his time studying with Igor Markevitch in Salzburg where the Russian, although insistent that the score was the conductor's Bible, would not allow his students to conduct from it. “In front of the orchestra, you have to guide their impulses, not read the score. How loud is loud? How fast is Allegro? You tell it with your hands.” And his hands do the job very effectively. Blomstedt doesn't use a baton. His conducting is mostly led by the shoulders and horizontal elbow jabs, his hands shaping the line with the smallest of gestures, an index finger cueing in sections, often accompanied by a beatific smile. No alchemy. No attention-grabbing flailing. No fuss.

There was plenty of Sturm und Drang darkness simmering in the outer movements of the Mozart, antiphonally divided violins setting up a lively dialogue. The Andante had an organic sense of flow, while the Minuet dug in with a sharp kick. Blomstedt included all the exposition and Minuet repeats, which allowed repeated opportunities to revel in the playing, particularly Mark van de Wiel's muscular clarinet tone in the bustling finale.

The two E flat major chords that opened the “Eroica” were swift lunges rather than monumental punches, signifying an energetic approach. Even if the opening movement didn't quite blaze with revolutionary spirit, a bristling Beethovenian scowl could easily be detected. The Philharmonia double basses drove the the Allegro con brio powerfully, with no slackening of tension. The Marcia funebre was purposeful, Tom Blomfield's lithe oboe and Emily Hultmark's soulful bassoon solos standing out. Antoine Siguré fired off the timpani funeral salute with flair. Blomstedt applied plenty of vigour to the Scherzo, the three horns supplying nocturnal balm to the central Trio. And then, after the furious scramble which opens the finale, the set of variations adapted from Beethoven's ballet The Creatures of Prometheus started out as elegantly as you'd wish before growing more boisterous.

Under Blomstedt, the coda was simply exultant. I'll have some of what he's having, please.

*****