One’s impossible, two is dreary. Three is company, safe and cheery. Those familiar thoughts are contained in two lines of a Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical. They could equally be applied, albeit retrospectively, to one of Beethoven’s Cinderella-like works written in 1804 during one of his most innovative periods of composition. There is something instantly intriguing about incorporating a piano trio into a work billed as a concerto, which in the case of this composer’s Triple begins quietly and mysteriously and ends with a jaunty little polonaise. And even if there is little that is revolutionary or barnstorming in the material itself, there is something immensely satisfying about listening to a performance of the piece given by 24-carat soloists working in perfect harmony with a top-flight orchestra and master musician as conductor.

Herbert Blomstedt © Mark Allan | Barbican
Herbert Blomstedt
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Curtain up then for the three stars Leonidas Kavakos, Gautier Capuçon and Kirill Gerstein with members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in supporting roles and the nonagenarian Herbert Blomstedt as a dapper master of ceremonies. A Haydnesque lightness of texture married to rhythmic drive emerged in the silvery tones of the solo violin, the vibrant rusticity of the cello and the sparklingly clear keyboard playing. Both Kavakos and Capuçon were placed close to each other but the heartfelt intensity of their duetting in no way affected the internal balance with Gerstein, positioned at the front of the platform. The delivery was suitably capricious for a piece which has its grand, tender, military and dramatic moments as well as its occasional violent accents and sudden silences, not to mention a coda in the finale which – much like the composer’s Fifth Symphony – makes a coquettish appearance and then withdraws behind the curtain before the full tableau is finally revealed. Throughout the rounded, energy-laden but never over-assertive accompaniment from the Leipzig players under the attentive Blomstedt made this Triple Concerto a delightful and substantial curtain-raiser. The encore was very appropriately the Adagio from Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B flat major Op.11, beautifully matching the inwardness of the concerto’s central Largo.

What we were treated to in the second half was a masterclass in how to conduct a Bruckner symphony. Younger conductors might throw themselves around on the rostrum in ever-dizzying gyrations; Blomstedt has no need for such attention-seeking flamboyance. In the Seventh he uses the Nowak edition without the added theatricality of cymbal and triangle. What he does in his role is quite simply to gently massage the work into life. The pulses of energy which allow it to breathe and sing come in flicks from his hands and wrists, with an occasional hunching of the shoulders and an avian-like backward thrusting of the extended arms. His fingers tap, pat, peck and tamp the air; at times an index finger reaches out into the surrounding space; the hands are there to scoop, scallop and shape. The net result is an organic flow, precisely as the composer intended, in which nothing is ever hurried or harried along, there is no unnecessary highlighting of individual solo voices and the melodic lines emerge naturally from the supporting textures. Easy, you might think, but it takes a lifetime to know when and where to intervene in the formative process and dispense the most consonant dosage of control.

It helps of course if you have established a deep and meaningful relationship with your players, but these musicians also need to be at the top of their game to make full use of the expressive freedom they are given by somebody like Blomstedt. What struck me about the sound of this Leipzig orchestra was how characterful it was. One could almost take the rich earthiness of the strings for granted, magnificently articulated in the fervour of the concertmaster Sebastian Breuninger whose physicality was a wondrous thing. The solo flute was dark-toned and chocolate in colour, the solo clarinet fruity, the quartet of Wagner tubas growled from the depths in the way their progenitor expected them to. The graininess was there to behold in the textures but what was particularly impressive was how these players move as one, breathing in and out collectively, able to produce the most hushed of sounds but also the most ferocious of climaxes that stretch every sinew.

It was in Leipzig that this great symphony, at the heart of which lies one composer’s sincere reverence to a dying colleague, was premiered on the penultimate day of 1884. The city’s musicians have long since absorbed it into their DNA. In March 1885, at its first performance in Munich, a leading critic wrote the following: “Here at last we have a composer who doesn’t struggle to transform tiny and trivial themes into something grand but instead, right from the very beginning, thinks in truly great dimensions.” Blomstedt’s performance did Bruckner complete justice.

*****