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Blomstedt's Angelic Concert

Severance Hall
10/21/2010 -  and Oct 22, 23*, 2010
Johannes Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
Paul Hindemith: Symphony: Mathis der Maler
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt

H. Blomstedt (© Philip Jones Griffiths)

When he took the stage in Severance Hall, Herbert Blomstedt received a loving welcome. Even though he’s never been the official leader of the Cleveland Orchestra, there was an atmosphere of devotion and respect. The expectation that Blomstedt would deliver a memorable performance was stratospheric, and, in a program of three Astro-German warhorses, the orchestral sound was brilliant, the interpretations surprising fleet and thankfully mannerism free and the audience wholly satisfied that they’d witnessed a special musical event.

Blomstedt’s tempo in the Brahms was unexpectedly brisk, both for the listener and, so it seemed, for the ensemble, whose passing off of motives in the first few minutes of the work didn’t quite align. Once the coordination came together, however, the tempo cast a new light on the overture. The rhythmic drive of the overture seemed to be the main focus of Blomstedt’s interpretation. There was almost no rubato, even before the last big chorale. The rhythmic layering was clearly balanced, and I was immediately appreciative of the superlative acoustics of Severance Hall. This seemed a Nordic interpretation of Brahms, finely honed and never wallowing in sentimentality.

Blomstedt’s superlative recordings of the orchestral works of Paul Hindemith from San Francisco raised the expectations even higher for the performance of the Mathis der Maler symphony that followed. It turned out to be the highlight of the entire evening. The first movement was again brisk, but the orchestra never waivered in its coordination. Excellent contributions from principal flutist Joshua Smith and the gloriously stoic deliveries of the “Es sungen drei Engel” melody from the trombones set the tone not only for this movement, but also for the finale. St. Anthony’s temptation was brilliantly conceived and executed. Blomstedt’s control of the ensemble was the epitome of virtuoso conducting. The free sections felt organic, but were perfectly in sync and maintained excellent momentum and tension. The nearly cataclysmic arrivals teetered on the edge of chaos but never crossed into the abyss. The final brass chorale was truly rapturous, with brilliant, balanced tone from the first trumpet down through the tuba. The performance received a great ovation and, after the concert, it was a delight to hear many audience members shuffling out after the concert wishing that this piece would crop up more on concert programs.

This last fact leads one to believe, rightly, that the performance of the Beethoven was not on the same plane of memorability. This isn’t to say that Gahrrick Ohlsson delivered a bad rendition, but he seemed to grow disinterested as the piece progressed. The first movement was powerful, muscular and drew some impressively thunderous octaves from Ohlsson. In the second movement, however, he seemed less involved, perhaps saving the spotlight for the coda linking it to the finale. Here, his elegiac phrasing of the rising arpeggios that both serve as a cadence for the Adagio and as the Rondo’s theme was gorgeous. Perhaps all his concentration and interpretive prowess were spent, because the finale (as is often the case in this concert, I find) seemed to be a slight letdown. Orchestra and soloist were well coordinated throughout and the main theme’s jaunty rhythms were well sprung, but the wind playing suffered from intonation problems that weren’t present in the first half of the program, and Ohlsson’s fingers were slightly derailed from time to time. While he certainly didn’t have an “off night”, it felt like he had an “off movement.”

This was my first visit to Severance Hall and my first live encounter with Blomstedt’s conducting. Both the hall and the maestro didn’t disappoint. The orchestra is a beautiful, precise machine, the acoustics projected the music with wonderful immediacy and impact, and Blomstedt gave everyone a night to remember.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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