JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - National Public Radio - Symphony Concerts (Conductor: Herbert Blomstedt) - August 21, 2002

National Public Radio - Symphony Concerts

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In search of the Classical Style

Classic, classical music is often characterized by adherence to form, clarity of ideas and their development and, above all, balance. Balance of colour, dynamics, phrasing, and articulation. To obtain an “ideal” performance, all of the former ingredients must be present, but used in the service of the composer’s feeling, thought and mood, which are never obvious to the eye.

Wednesday’s broadcast by the San Francisco Symphony skimmed the surface of essential classicism, while still providing many memorable moments.

The Haydn symphony that led off was presented by Herbert Blomstedt in a manner that was more focused on sound than substance. Very often, lengths of notes would be truncated leaving the landscape more barren than Haydn intended. The articulation—particularly winds compared to strings—was at odds with the score. But let me be clear: every Haydn score and its parts must be edited as no two of the same work will agree; what’s most important is that within an edition/performance there has been a meeting of minds.

But the orchestra sounded great (it’s been almost two decades since I last heard this wonderful ensemble in person)—the upper strings generally crisp and clear and the winds produced a compelling, homogeneous tone, but the low strings and tympani suffered from being the recording engineer’s favourites, and, unfortunately, their over emphasis and heady reverb (especially evident in the pizzicati) skewed Blomstedt’s attempts at maintaining a proportional balance, at least on the radio.

The lively “Allegro spiritoso,” having been well set up by a none too fast introduction, darted merrily on its way and was a happy combination of skill and enthusiasm. The following “Largo” lumbered along and was in desperate need of lift, then suddenly the F-sharp minor section appeared and we were treated to the most incredibly beautiful eight bars of the entire program. Oh to find that magic more often!

The “Menuetto” and “Finale” both had too many bar lines. The music was played in such a vertical manner that it was never able to fly off the page with forward momentum. The violins would benefit from less bow and more spiccato to add zest and spark to the mix. A larger variety of styles and attacks would have pushed this performance ahead several notches.

Julia Fischer brought confidence, unerring technique and nearly impeccable intonation to Mozart’s G Major Concerto. Now that she has all of that in hand, I’m hoping she will be able to moderate her vibrato and just relax into the music. Too often the lines were thrust at us rather delivered for our edification. The second movement cadenza was a case in point: the “violining” was exceptional but the presentation near oppressive. Further reflection on the ethereal string tone of the accompaniment might open up new approaches to the shape and weight of the solo lines.

The program concluded with an effective reading of Schubert’s most Italianate symphony. The conductor laureate seemed much more at home with this sunny score and led his players through its charming pages with verve and commitment.

All the repeats (save one) were observed, allowing Schubert the opportunity to clearly state his intentions before leading us into the fun and harmonic twists and turns of his incredible developments. It was in those that I wished Blomstedt would breathe a bit more often and persuade his charges to produce a true pianissimo.

The final “Allegro moderato” took off at such a pace that the Haydn-like “joke” of falling into the “wrong” key (E-flat major!!) was consistently missed; the fermati used more to catch a breath than to create suspense. This minor masterpiece galloped along to its resolution and was greeted by hearty applause and cheers of those assembled for this classical buffet. JWR

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Conductor - Herbert Blomstedt
Violin - Julia Fischer
Symphony No. 86 in D Major - Franz Joseph Haydn
Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 6 in C Major - Franz Schubert
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