Orchestras stay, while conductors come and go – so it normally goes. However, in the case of maestro Herbert Blomstedt you might think differently. He is 91, very active, and carries some 65 years of conducting experience with him. That’s more candles than many orchestras have to blow, including most of the period-instrument ensembles. Blomstedt brings a communicative sense of joy to music-making and his conducting seems alien to any sign of routine or tiredness. Returning to Brussels with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO), Blomstedt treated us to a magnificent concert with utterly compelling readings of symphonies from Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin U.K. Lengemann

Blomstedt and the RCO form a fruitful osmosis. Since the abrupt dismissal of music director Daniele Gatti last summer, the Amsterdam formation has had its share of replacement conductors, yet with a giant like Blomstedt it seems like the good old times again. With him guesting, the RCO duly honoured its reputation as one of the world’s finest. His enthusiasm reflected happily on the musicians and that’s not even mentioning the quality of the playing. Blomstedt knows exactly how much expressive freedom he can give them, but he needn’t have worried: they played like devils for him. The individual and collective virtuosity were absolutely impressive, the sound an extraordinary thing to hear.

In Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony the clarity and impeccable orchestral balance were immediately noticeable. It was a big formation but the placement, with divided violins and double basses back left, guaranteed an open but substantial, richly layered sound. Our perception of how this music can sound has changed, especially since historically informed or period-influenced performances have shed their light on the romantics. Yet, here was ample proof that most of the issues raised against traditional orchestras in this repertory are pointless with playing of such calibre.

This Mendelssohn was questioning and moody, at times impulsive or joyful then again grand, but always alive. And he came alive with proper shape and cohesion, appearing in a great variety of tones, whether grey and autumnal as in the first movement, or brilliantly colourful in the Vivace non troppo and the final movement. As always, Blomstedt’s tempo choices seemed to come naturally and he wasn’t afraid to slow down when it mattered. Solos were all first-rate, but the clarinet of Calogero Palermo deserves special mention.

While the Mendelssohn was superb, the Brahms’ First Symphony was even more satisfying and ranks as one of the finest I ever heard in concert. Blomstedt’s structural grip was undeniable. The first movement exuded tremendous expressive power, with a convincingly flowing tempo and superbly handled dynamics. The beauty of the orchestra was again a constant wonder, revelling in the characteristic Brahmsian play of light and darkness. Blomstedt’s inclusion of the exposition repeat was completely justified. It magnified the impact of the movement without impairing its sweep.

The Andante sostenuto was intense as well, with its refined instrumentation glowing from every bar. The progressive lightening of the orchestral texture from muted horns, bassoons and lower strings to oboe, clarinet and, finally, violin solos – all splendidly performed – felt like an ascent from darkness to light, foreshadowing the last movement.

The final movement started in a theatrical manner, the strings tiptoeing very softly in the pizzicati, competing with threatening lashes from winds and strings, and growling timpani rolls. The famous horn and flute passage was edge of seat stuff, while the following mood swings, at times furiously playing around the big theme, were very excitingly handled. The final rush was a break free moment of tremendous exhilaration.

Between the symphonies, as a gift from his homeland, Blomstedt brought the orchestral Intermezzo from Wilhelm Stenhammar's symphonic cantata Sången. Stenhammar died in the year that Blomstedt was born. His music remains a rarity outside of Sweden. Blomstedt has since long championed his work and made a recording of, among others, this Sången. The cantata was created in 1921 for the Royal Swedish Academy of Music as an homage to music, with a tale of the birth and deification of song. Hardly six minutes long, the Intermezzo does what it says on the tin. Slow and stately in Blomstedt’s hands, sounding like a peculiar blend of Wagner and Elgar, with beautifully spun string canvases and brass chorales – in which the RCO excels – it left us begging for more. But then again, with such readings of the symphonies, Blomstedt and the RCO had spoiled us aplenty.