I had not planned to be home in Vienna this weekend, but once here I decided to see if there would be last-minute tickets available for otherwise sold out concerts, and I got lucky with one tonight and one tomorrow afternoon.
Tonight’s offer, in the Konzerthaus, allowed me to hear Herbert Blomstedt and the Bamberg Symphony explore the architecture of Schubert and Bruckner in a well-paired concert containing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.
The Swedish-American Blomstedt, still amazingly spritely at 89 years old, is a master builder of orchestral sound. The Bamberg Symphony, originally founded by ethnic Germans exiled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War (victims of the post-war reprisals against Nazi Germany’s policies towards that country – although some of them probably less-than-innocent victims), is an orchestra I only knew of through its solid recordings and reputation, and now got to hear live for the first time (the current orchestra members are obviously not the original ones, so it’s a new generation from the days of its old recordings).
From tonight’s performance, we clearly saw how much Schubert inspired Bruckner. Blomstedt constructed the two movements of the Unfinished out of solid building blocks, while still enabling the lyrical melodies to sore, in many ways a prototype for Bruckner. Having heard Beethoven’s expansive Eroica Symphony on Wednesday with a scaled-down orchestra, it was refreshing for me to hear Schubert’s often dainty Unfinished with a full ensemble on stage. This was a mighty performance, without sacrificing any of the charm. The low string rumblings at the opening of the first movement set the foundations in place upon which Blomstedt built the pillars to hold up the soaring roof. He also emphasized often unseen and unheard angles within the solid supporting construction, which allowed layer upon layer of melody to pile on top.
Although unfortunate that Schubert never completed more than those two movements of this tremendous symphony, this interpretation naturally flowed into Bruckner after the intermission. Indeed, we could hear similar low strings supporting ever more layers upon layers of sound. So while Schubert died young, Bruckner the former church organist was in many ways his symphonic heir. Blomstedt may not use the heavist stones when constructing Bruckner’s cathedrals, but his interpretations always demonstrate him as understanding the architecture. The Swede may be an acquired taste, but indeed one worth acquiring. The fully packed Konzerthaus audience clearly approved.
The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra scored a triumph in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule this evening, with round after round of boisterous applause and foot-stomping. On the podium, the almost-youthful Herbert Blomstedt, who is actually as old as any four orchestra members combined. But this in no way made him any less enthusiastic, and the warm bond between Blomstedt and the orchestra became immediately apparent.
The concert led off with Mozart’s Symphony #39, a work in which the playful composer switched directions several times. Just when the symphony looked to go one way, Mozart went the other. Blomstedt accentuated these jumps, and the skillful musicians smiled back.
This was my first time in the Felsenreitschule, a concert hall made for the Salzburg Festival, built out of a former Prince-Archbishop’s stables carved into the mountainside. I found the hall a bit odd – the seating in the theater is symmetrical, but not centered in the room. The stage is used by the Festival for opera productions, and so many of the sets, as well as scaffolding, cluttered the sides around the orchestra, making it feel like they were performing in a warehouse (while we were sitting in a theater that did not quite match). The acoustics are supposed to be excellent – it is what made Max Reinhardt and the other founders of the Festival want to use this space, but for the Mozart the orchestra sounded a bit distant.
Yet the orchestra on stage for Mozart was small. After the intermission, the full orchestra emerged for Dvořák’s Symphony #9, and they no longer sounded distant. This was odd, because the sound should depend on the number of instruments playing and their volume, and not the number of instruments sitting on stage (in other words, the big passages in the Mozart still sounded distant, whereas the quieter passages scored for only a few instruments in the Dvořák did not. Perhaps it took this long to warm up (the hall indeed felt warmer as the night wore on).
Blomstedt and the orchestra continued to have fun with the Dvořák, particularly the syncopated rhythms where they accentuated the dance. Ultimately, they went directly to a dance, one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances came as an encore that shook the hall. Talented playing all around – remarkable woodwinds (especially the English Horn solo in the Dvořák; although the flutist for the Dvořák was no where near as good as his colleague who had performed for the Mozart, and who reminded me of my sister).
For reasons unclear to me, the Salzburg Festival decided to perform a whole lot of Bruckner this summer (nine numbered symphonies and some religious works). I certainly will not complain. I selected three symphonies (tickets are not cheap, so I had no desire to waste good money on listening to the likes of Dudamel or Barenboim attempt Bruckner), starting tonight with Symphony #8.
The Vienna Philharmonic was conducted by the 87-year-old Swede Herbert Blomstedt. Riccardo Chailly had been scheduled, but he broke his arm in a fall last month. Although Chailly is an excellent interpreter of Bruckner (and I heard him conduct #6 with the Philarmonic in the Musikverein earlier this year), I actually thought the substitution fortuitous (although I do wish Chailly a good recovery). I have heard Blomstedt conduct already this year (a masterful Brahms Requiem with the Vienna Symphony, also in the Musikverein), and I’ve heard him before as well – but never for Bruckner. The man has a sense of architecture, which applies well with this, the mightiest of Bruckner’s cathedrals of sound.
This was a controlled reading, measured, structured, and constructed to the sky. This cathedral was not just of hewed stone, but had its ornaments. It had its humorous gargoyles. The woodwinds provided birds fluttering and pearching in its towers. It had its brutal stained glass. The light came through the widows high up in the dome. The instruments echoed off the walls and came back to confront each other. Although not scored for bells, they too pealed in the pizzicatti strings or the pounding of the timpani. Blomstedt and the Philharmonic understood and reproduced all of this from Bruckner’s architectural renderings. Not everyone can make this symphony work (the last time I remember hearing it live was about twenty-five years ago with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, and they certainly couldn’t figure out what to do with Bruckner’s plans). So not a bad way to experience my first night at the Salzburg Festival.