On Saturday morning—11 o’clock—the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra played a concert at the Salzburg Festival. There were two symphonies on the program—two Fourth Symphonies, in fact: that of Sibelius and that of Bruckner. Leading the VPO was Herbert Blomstedt, the veteran Swedish conductor.
Not often do we hear the Symphony No. 4 of Sibelius. We’re apt to hear his Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, and 5. No. 3, now and then. Nos. 4, 6, and 7, quite rarely. The public has not quite taken those works to its heart. Maybe repeated exposure would make the heart grow fonder.
No. 4 is an inward, unusual piece—and Blomstedt made a good case for it. Or rather, he made Sibelius’s case. The music-making was simple, natural, and unforced. Nothing was imposed, nothing was added (or subtracted). Soon, I became unaware of Blomstedt’s conducting. I was simply listening to Sibelius. The conductor was a transparency for the music.
This was in contrast to the evening before, when Teodor Currentzis conducted his Russian orchestra in two symphonies of Beethoven. I was never unaware of the conducting. Yet this was an excellent concert—just different. (I will have more to say about this in a forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.)
In the Sibelius, the Vienna Philharmonic played beautifully, as expected. The principal flute was outstanding—fetching and deft. And what is it about the VPO brass? They can play loud—even very loud—without blaring. It’s like being socked in the face and liking it.
The Symphony No. 4 of Bruckner is the one nicknamed “the Romantic.” The principal French horn plays a leading role. When the Vienna player began, I thought, “Ah, how nice: a horn you don’t have to worry about.” A concertgoer spends much of his life worrying about French horns. Before long, however, you had to worry about this one: Homer nodded.
The life of a French-horn player is a high-pressure, often thankless affair.
As the orchestra played, I thought of the line about Bruckner’s symphonies: “cathedrals in sound.” The Fourth really was.
Over the years, I have written about the VPO sound, as everyone has. It was especially beautiful—especially right—in the Bruckner Fourth on Saturday morning. It was warm, glowing, rich, caressing, and filling. Sound isn’t everything, heaven knows, but it’s also not nothing, especially in Bruckner.
As the orchestra played, I thought of the line about his symphonies: “cathedrals in sound.” The Fourth really was. Of course, this symphony has more than grandeur, including grace, intimacy—even downright gaiety. And this performance accounted for every mood.
Maestro Blomstedt clearly knew the architecture of the piece. He let it unfold, patiently but not passively. I felt I was listening to the Bruckner Fourth rather than an interpretation of it.
I wish the final chord of the first movement had been more together. I wish the same of the pizzicatos in the second movement. But these are trivialities, set against the whole. Each “first deskman” (as we used to say) played like a top-flight soloist. Again, the flute stood out.
Overall, this performance was an exalting experience. The last chord did not have an ending, per se—it was not so much cut off as sent out into the universe, to continue. If that strikes you as overly mystical, forgive me.
I’m sure this performance was recorded. There may even be a festival-issued CD eventually. But a performance like that is not really capturable on a recording. You can no more capture it than you can capture a mountain range on your smartphone (good as those are). This was one of those had-to-be-there experiences. It showed what music can do.
People are fascinated by age, and I will duly record that Herbert Blomstedt is ninety-one. He stood for both symphonies (whereas many senior conductors sit). He conducted both from memory. He had a score on a stand before him, closed, untouched. He also conducted without a baton.
After the Bruckner, the audience, elated and grateful, clapped and clapped. The orchestra finally left the stage. A portion of the audience kept clapping. So, Maestro Blomstedt came back out, on an empty stage, and waved goodbye. I had never seen that before.