sat 25/06/2022

Gerhaher, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Blomstedt, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Gerhaher, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Blomstedt, Royal Albert Hall

Gerhaher, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Blomstedt, Royal Albert Hall

Not a concert but a masterclass in Bruckner conducting

Yet again I leave a Herbert Blomstedt concert with a sense of wonderment and bemusement. Wonderment at the extraordinary music-making that this man is capable of. Bemusement as to why he is not better known, his talents not more widely recognised, his services not more often called upon in this, his 83rd year. Last night's masterful Prom saw him leading the youngsters of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester first into the heavens of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphony and then into the fiery wastes of hell in Bruckner's terrifying Ninth.

Sure, if I passed the tall, mousey, seraphically suburban figure of Blomstedt on the street I'd probably think he was a dentist. "He is to charisma what Dame Barbara Cartland was to gansta rap," once wrote The Times's music critic, Richard Morrison. This may be true. But he is also a conduit to some of the most extraordinary musical journeys I've ever been on.
The key to unlocking the beauties of Hindemith's exquisite Mathis der Maler Symphony - a redux of his Mathis der Maler opera - is translucency. Only through careful balancing will the contrapuntal labyrinth that powers this Breughel-like landscape of furiously ordered activity make sense. And the balance has to be vertical as well as horizontal. But with Blomstedt - a Hindemith expert - one needn't worry. The Churchy chorales swung out of the lofty trombonists - who were bobbing with the beat - like peeling bells, while the double basses, lined up and hung up high like a series of sainted icons, ploughed a delicious contrapuntal furrow.
The orchestra showed some signs of unfamiliarity with the piece in a few moments of slight dislocation, but mostly they were right on it and always digging deep. The string sound was extraordinary: the finest, most rich, but oddly also pure, string sound of the season. There was a distinct lack of vibrato in the Mathis Symphony, perhaps to summon up a vestal sound. The Sehr langsam, frei im Zeitmass ("Very slow, timeless") passage of the third movement - which represents the "Temptation of St Anthony" - was thick and dense and long like girls hair: suggestive, amorphous, suffocating. After more fugues, we return to this sweaty world, the first violins transformed into crickets, trilling high up on the E string, generating a humidity, while others, bass instruments, agonise.
With all the complicated fugal climaxes and tempi changes achieved with such ease, it boded well for the Bruckner. Bruckner had after all served as a model and hero to Hindemith. Hindemith's own performance of Bruckner's Seventh with the Chicago Symphony - a dry and structured approach - is fascinating. But first up, a Mahlerian detour in the company of the wayfarer in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfaring Lad"). It was intriguing to hear this Jewish composer sandwiched in this Aryan company. The links from and to both are strong (Mahler was a Bruckner acolyte, after all), as were the dissonances. What is most clear is the sense that Mahler, even at his most blissful is never far from collapse; how different a sound world and sound narrative it is to the surety of both the terror in Bruckner's Ninth and the magic of God's work in the Hindemith.
Christian Gerhaher, completely on top of the tricky score, always able to control and inflect the notes even when stretched, wandered through these fragile songs as if shell-shocked, often reverting to a filled out speech in Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz ("My love's two blue eyes"), or a syllabic snapping in Ich hab' ein glühend Messer in meiner Brust ("I have a glowing knife in my heart").
And then Blomstedt took us to the edge of the apocalypse in his Bruckner Nine. It was Bruckner as I haven't heard it done live since Blomstedt's own magnificent Eight in Edinburgh a few years back, the highlight of that year's Bruckner cycle, dominated, as it was, by a supreme sense of structure and timing and long-term planning. And all without a score.
Everyone knows that in Bruckner what seems big is, in the scheme of things, quite small. Bruckner-land is a land of giants. But few conductors have the bravery to adjust to this new setting, to hold back, keep calm, trust Bruckner and not blow the lot on the first climax. Only a conductor like Blomstedt who clearly lives and breathes the score can afford to take this path. And one felt the confidence of his approach in the interpretation. Rarely have I heard a Bruckner symphony where so many of the very many tempi changes have made so much sense.
But this wasn't a Bruckner-by-numbers. What was so interesting about Blomstedt's approach was the amount of drama that coursed through the performance: the demons - that burst forth and wreak havoc in the Scherzo - creeping into the Misterioso of the first movement, the gaping rests, clear, demonstrative vacuums that, like the slurs in Vänskä's rendition of the Fourth the other night, act as springs for the following vaults and assaults on our ears, the sweetness always turning pungent, the bleating double basses, the caterwauling violins, the swiftness of the final woodwind chorale of the first movement, almost to be seen as a low-flying pack of fleeing birds.
Blomstedt added a sea serpent-like swing to the arpeggio-ed nastiness of the Scherzo and a cruel speed (relatively speaking) to the agonies of the Adagio, never allowing the motives to be wallowed in, or pondered, merely laid out barely and boldly, and always spinning centrifugally from tenderness to soreness. And, as with any master Brucknerian, there was always gas in reserve for the final shattering climax. This wasn't a concert; it was a masterclass, in programming, in conducting, in playing. The Proms are basking in an Indian Summer. What a joy.


I am delighted to agree with every thought and word of this sensitive and perceptive response to a deeply felt and passionately performed concert. I too was at the Edinburgh performance of the eighth and was astonished and overwhelmed. Blomstedt somehow sees the shape, hears the texture with no self regard but full generosity.

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