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February 6, 2004

Herbert Blomstedt

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By Lisa Hirsch

Herbert Blomstedt's San Francisco Symphony program heard last Friday was an odd duck, pairing Schubert's 5th Symphony in B flat and Brahms's 4th Symphony in E minor. On paper, they must have looked like contrasting and complementary works: the short, lightly-scored, graceful Schubert and the longer, richly-orchestrated, weighty Brahms. Instead of one illuminating aspects of the other, the Brahms overwhelmed the Schubert in every way. The program needed something, but I'm not quite sure what: the addition of an overture? Swapping the 5th for the stormy, minor-key Tragic Symphony? Jettisoning Schubert entirely and substituting a concerto or some other large-scale work such as a tone poem?

The two works did have one thing in common. In a nod to period practice, Blomstedt arranged the orchestra for both with the first violins to his left and second violins to his right. The lower strings were arrayed between the violins, the winds to the center and rear. Associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman led the Schubert, with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik taking the first seat for the Brahms.

The Schubert dates from 1816, when the composer was only 19. By then, Beethoven had written eight of his nine symphonies and completed most of the piano sonatas, but the Schubert comes from an earlier and more gracious world, that of middle Haydn and Mozart. It's small in scale, well-proportioned, charming, full of pretty tunes and lovely moments. Only the minor-key menuetto suggests a stormier, more complex emotional world.

More the lightweight

The score calls for seven winds and no timpani, and even when filled out with strings, the orchestra is very small. This symphony is not a natural work for the vastness of Davies Symphony Hall. It's very difficult for an orchestra of 30 or so to make an impact in that space, however delightful the music. Conducting enthusiastically without score or baton, and on the stage rather than a podium, Blomstedt worked hard to bring the piece to life, with variable results. The second movement is nominally the slow movement, an andante con moto (with motion) in which this performance emphasized the motion. It floated beautifully and with some urgency. The sunny last movement was played sweetly and, especially in the contrasting minor-key middle section, with some vigor.

The Brahms was more Blomstedt's element and (this time on the podium with a baton) he gave it a tremendous, deeply-felt performance. There was no wallowing, no loss of momentum or shape. Throughout, his conducting felt entirely natural and unmannered, allowing the music to unfold organically in phrases longer than those written. There was plenty of fire, too, especially in the outer movements. The slow movement built beautifully and sounded gorgeous, especially the contrast between the opening wind choir and the pizzicato strings. The scherzo had the requisite energy and joy. I don't think I've ever heard the last movement performed with such coherence and logic.

Certainly, part of the glory of the Brahms was the orchestra itself, which responded so well to Blomstedt's direction. Throughout, the players produced a warm, massive sound that never went out of balance and never turned muddy. Textures were always distinct and every instrument could be picked out easily, despite the huge sound coming from the stage.

This SFS program, given three times last week, isn't your last chance to hear Blomstedt's Brahms. He'll be performing the First Symphony later this month with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra — and this time the Brahms is matched with Mozart's 41st Symphony, the “Jupiter,” a more appropriate pairing.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2004 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved