Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Blomstedt: This incandescent concert of Bruckner and Mozart proves that age is just a number

26 May 2022

Oldies, but goodies at the Royal Festival Hall.

Herbert Blomstedt

Maria João Pires & Herbert Blomstedt (Photo: Tom Howard)

The coming together of two titans from the world of classical music – conductor Herbert Blomstedt and pianist Maria João Pires – to perform Mozart and Bruckner was one of the most eagerly anticipated concerts of the season. With a combined age of 171, to say both artists brought a wealth of experience to the two works on the programme would be an understatement. Yet, in a world seemingly so fixated on youth, it was an unalloyed pleasure to be in the presence of these musical veterans, as they delivered performances of such unbridled joy, spontaneity, and intelligence, that this particular listener felt privileged to be there.

The first half was devoted to one work, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. One of his most popular and readily recognisable works, its familiarity can often instil a sense of routine into both performers and audience. Not here however – Blomstedt and Pires’ interpretation was fresh, vivacious, and brimming with youthful exuberance. Her long-standing association with the piece was evident in every bar – at turns delicate and loving, but never sentimental. She produced playing that was perfectly attuned to every mood swing – bright and infectious in the first movement, gloriously rich and emotive in the second, while the third was effervescent from first bar to last – her consummate articulation of every note and turn, allied to faultless phrasing throughout.

Blomstedt accompanied superbly – always maintaining a perfect balance between orchestra and soloist. This kind of musical synergy can’t be manufactured overnight – it takes a lifetime of dedication and expertise – which both artists possess in spades.

“With a combined age of 171, to say both artists brought a wealth of experience… would be an understatement”

Herbert Blomstedt

Herbert Blomstedt (Photo: Tom Howard)

After the interval Blomstedt returned to conduct an incandescent performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Defying all known laws of ageing, he belied his 95 years – standing throughout the duration of the symphony’s 70 minute span to conduct, and never referring to the score which remained resolutely closed in front of him – delivering a performance of immense power and musical integrity.

Certain conductors have a tendency to wallow in Bruckner’s music, taking things at too leisurely a pace. And while it’s true his music needs space to breathe, it doesn’t need to plod along at a snail’s pace either. Blomstedt’s approach never forsook the grandeur of the symphony, yet by choosing tempi that erred on the swift side, the entire symphony had a forward propulsion that is so often lacking.

The first entry on the cellos, rich and fulsome, gave notice that this was going to be an exceptional performance of world-class music making. Blomstedt, conducting without a baton, caressed every phrase lovingly, and the players responded accordingly. The architecture of this long, 20 minute movement, was brilliantly etched, all making musical and thematic sense. In the second, the sonorous chorales for the Wagner tubas and tuba, were perfectly realised with warm, rotund tones, while Blomstedt built up to the climax organically – but without the cymbal clash and triangle, despite the Nowak edition being used on this occasion. There was energy and drive in the third movement, while the last had a lightness of touch, almost impishness, that one rarely experiences, yet is precisely what Bruckner asks for here.

It was evident throughout that the players of the Philharmonia relished every minute of their time with Blomstedt. Each section rose to the occasion, and played out of their skins for him, particularly the brass, who were on unbeatable form. All in all this was one of those rare evenings in the concert hall where everything was pitch-perfect, and for once the unanimous standing ovation seemed the only fitting way to show our appreciation of both conductor and orchestra. Blomstedt may be turning 95 in July, but on the basis of this showing his energy remains undimmed – his return can’t come soon enough.

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Philharmonia/Blomstedt: This incandescent concert of Bruckner and Mozart proves that age is just a number