When reading a list of the 10 busiest conductors of last year, you might not expect to find a 91-year-old on it. Still, you can pick any year from the past decade and that same man will continuously appear on the list. It is quite impossible not to marvel at that fact, but then again, it’s not any conductor we’re talking about – it’s Herbert Blomstedt.

Blomstedt and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra go way back: their first concert together took place 65 years ago, and since then there have been many reunions. This time, they reunited over Haydn’s Symphony no. 104 in D major and Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major .

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra © GSOPlay
Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
© GSOPlay

The last of Haydn’s London symphonies starts with the whole orchestra playing the same proudly double-dotted rhythm, and immediately we were invited into an open and clear sound that would last throughout the whole piece. Despite the Adagio tempo and the minor key at the start, the character was quite bright and airy, the following major-key Allegro reinforcing this atmosphere. Blomstedt brought out every phrase with a clear sense of direction and meaning, often with a brisk sense of humour that showed the legendary conductor’s seemingly forever-young heart.

The second movement started with a warm string sound and especially lovely double basses finishing off the phrase. The air and light were still present, but the tone was a bit more serious and thoughtful, however never sombre. Blomstedt sang the music through the orchestra, injecting life and purpose into every detail.

The Menuetto was crisp and dancing, with a fun swing and a well-balanced use of silence; rests are music too, and Blomstedt knew how to use them to make an impact. This tasteful and effective way of using silence returned often throughout the symphony.

The last movement proved to be an absolute earworm, with its folk tune-inspired melody and a sprightly, swirling performance. I couldn’t keep from smiling while listening to this wonderful orchestra led by what seemed to be a 91-year-old boy, curious and full of life and mischief. 

Herbert Blomstedt and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra © GSOPlay
Herbert Blomstedt and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
© GSOPlay

Mahler wrote many versions of his first symphony, the early ones including a programme describing what the music was about. Even though the composer later renounced all non-musical content of the symphony, the title "Titan" has stuck and is still an often used nickname.

Whether Mahler wanted it or not, the music does trigger one’s imagination. The beginning painted a vast landscape at sunrise, which gradually mixed with fragments of birdsong and distant trumpet fanfares heralding something heroic.

After the fragments, the cellos established the theme, with some lovely commenting birdsong from the clarinet. Blomstedt built up to the first culmination, but wisely held back, so that the orchestra could reach up even higher on the second peak. Blomstedt mastered this crucial balance throughout the whole symphony, so that he always had more to add when he needed it, right up to the climax of the very last, and very loud, end of the fourth movement.

The promise of heroism given by the trumpets was met several times, especially in the end of the first movement and in the fourth, where the music was at times exultant – almost overwhelming. Had Blomstedt treated Mahler like he did Haydn, adding emotion and life every chance he got, it would have gone past grandiose and into overstated and pretentious. Luckily, he let the built-in drama of the music appear without further exaggeration.

The most interesting movement was the third. It consists of a bitter and strange minor-key rendition of the children’s song Frère Jacques, and a klezmer-inspired dance. In the former part there were some wonderful solos, especially by the bassoon that started the canon after the double bass’ presentation of the melody, and by the oboe, playing a distinct counter-melody on top of the canon: it played mockingly and made the dark irony of the music come across well. As before, Blomstedt kept the latter part moderate and balanced; the klezmer feeling was clearly present, without any need for excess.

Despite Mahler’s unquestionably grand and powerful music, what lingered in my mind at the end of the night was not the heroic ending of his symphony, but Haydn's spirited fourth movement. That obstinate but cheerful earworm hasn’t left me alone quite yet.

This review is part of our student reviewers programme in collaboration with the Academy of Music & Drama of the University of Gothenburg.

Reviewed at Gothenburg Concert Hall, Gothenburg on 27 April 2019


Haydn, Symphony no. 104 in D major "London"

Mahler, Symphony no. 1 in D major "Titan"


Gothenburg Symphony

Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor