Sixty years after his debut with the Swedish Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt appears to be the same gaunt, friendly lad who at his debut bowled everyone over with his precocious talent.  As the 87 year old Maestro stood in front of the orchestra in a sold out Stockholm Concert Hall last Saturday, one was struck by his unassuming authority: the very slight movement of his hands, the intelligent gaze which connects with every player in the ensemble and encourages them to bloom musically. The afternoon turned out a be a tribute to his mastery of the architecture of music, even though the display of harnessed perfection occasionally left one wishing for less restraint.

Herbert Blomstedt © Gert Mothes/ CAMI
Herbert Blomstedt
© Gert Mothes/ CAMI

This was a historic afternoon in more ways than one: the programme, an odyssey through German music history, was identical to the one Blomstedt presented in a memorable debut 60 year ago. The journey, which started with Bach and Beethoven and ended with Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, frames the artist as a towering figure of inspiration, manifesting resistance and civil courage through his work – the very ideals which Blomstedt has celebrated throughout his illustrious career.

In the opening work, J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite no 2 in B minor, Blomstedt took the reduced ensemble through the elegantly moulded dances at an even, swift pace. His Bach was a dressed-down classic, virtuoso without flaunting the richness of the score. Equally discreet was the solo flautist, Andreas Alin, blending his ornate part into the tutti sections, allowing it to emerge as a more distinct solo voice only when accompanied by the smaller continuo group.

The slower movements – the Overture, the Sarabande and the Polonaise – never became heavy and pompous, suggesting regal wisdom rather than the superficial glories of court. In return, the buzzing Badinerie flew by with the lightness of a butterfly announcing the advent of Spring. With loving tenderness, Blomstedt held his hands close to his mouth to indicate the more hushed moments – the next moment, gracefully fanning them to suggest more fullbodied dynamics.

For the Beethoven Piano Concerto no 1 in C major, Blomstedt and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are joined by American-Swedish pianist Garrick Ohlsson. Even though this superb pianist, who towered majestically above everyone else on stage, barely managed to squeeze his knees underneath the keyboard, nothing in his flawless technique ever conveyed this to be a problem. Instead, Ohlsson appeared unfazed by the youthful brilliance of this score. For the concerto, Blomstedt took care to conceal himself behind the grand piano, allowing the soloist to dominate the stage while he as conductor immersed himself in the intricacy of the orchestral parts. He set the stage for Ohlson, with pompous timpani at the onset of the first movement, pulling back when the soloist moved through the chromatically descending scales of the development. A gasp was heard from the audience following the lengthy cadenza in the first movement, daringly weaving the opening theme through a maze of tonalities, yet never exceeding a mezzoforte.

The lyrical second movement brought out the chamber musical aspects of the piece, with a series of intimate duets between the soloist and individual woodwind instruments, one after the other. Ohlson led the orchestra into the joyfully brisk finale, subtly understating the syncopated rhythms of the second theme and bringing this lighthearted concerto to a playful close.

Following intermission, it was finally time to welcome the entire orchestra on stage for Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony. This piece also marked a jubilee, having been premièred in Berlin 70 years ago in 1934 prior to the completion of the opera with the same title. Following the controlled expressions of the first part of the concert, this work allowed a welcome unleashing of emotion, but despite the larger orchestral forces, the conductor maintained the distinctive clarity displayed by the ensemble during the first half of the concert. The magnificent chorale intoned by trumpet and woodwinds in the opening movement, the “Angelic Concerto”, became a tribute to the independent spirit of the artist, especially upon it’s return in the finale.

The hushed interplay between solo woodwinds and pizzicato strings of the second movement (“Entombment”) recollected the airy lightness of the Bach suite. In the visionary last movement, Blomstedt brought out the playfulness suggested by the brass section going at full throttle, in contrast to the prior chase of musical themes through an array of voices. After this elegant display of musical control, Blomstedt was rewarded with standing ovations from the audience and with orchestral fanfare.