The last time I heard Brahms‘ Requiem live was also with Herbert Blomstedt in the Musikverein with the Singverein… but a different orchestra. Then (2014) it was the Symphoniker (Vienna’s second-best orchestra, still maybe top ten in the world these days), the night before I moved to Salzburg. Tonight it was the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (top five, on a par with the Philadelphia Orchestra) in town for a visit. This is the same orchestra which gave the first complete performance of this work back in 1869 (no, Blomstedt was not conducting that night… although it almost feels like he should have been).
I remember that 2014 concert clearly, and although I had not planned to be in Vienna tonight, some workmen at home combined with a public holiday yesterday brought me here and a ticket (in my usual seat, no less) opened up for an otherwise sold out performance and beckoned me back.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra is somewhat more dainty than the Vienna Symphony, and Blomstedt was its music director from 1998-2005, making him quite familiar with its strengths. As a result, tonight’s concert was probably a little less driven than I remember the 2014 interpretation – possibly not as memorable. But Blomstedt milked the bittersweet tones from the woodwinds (it’s called a “requiem,” after all – although not a traditional one – yet it has a certain sweetness in the sorrow). The orchestra and chorus sounded delicate but still full – it’s a big piece, but cannot become overbearing. Restrained but at times exhuberant – indeed it looked like the measured Blomstedt almost started dancing at points – but at other points the tragedy nearly brought the house down.
We opened with the low strings, which quietly got the Musikverein’s floorboards vibrating, opening to an otherworldly choir. The tympani highlighted the swells, particularly in the second movement, to pure devastation. And the at times Blomstedt’s construction, and the implementation by orchestra and chorus, produced the foreboding effect of tolling bells.
Blomstedt stood to conduct (in contrast with this summer at the Festival, when he conducted sitting), but still moves a little more slowly than last year. He’s 90 years old: the twinkle in his eye does it all. The Gewandhaus Orchestra also has a throwback tone to another era (founded in 1781, this was Mendelssohn’s orchestra in the mid 1800s and one which guards its traditions well). Blomstedt knows that, and knew when to make this unusual work by Brahms sometimes more classical in nuance (if romantic in construction) playing on the orchestra’s strengths.
The Singverein blended perfectly with the Orchestra, as did baritone soloist Michael Nagy. The soprano, Hannah Morrison, seems not to have gotten the memo, however. Her voice is quite pretty at the lower volumes, but when she had to add more heft it became a tad bitter and forced. She seems to be a baroque specialist, and this work may just have been too much for her.
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.
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.