With the lamentable departure of the beloved Bernard Haitink from this sphere, Herbert Blomstedt, whether he is interested in the fact or not (and he is no doubt tired of being interviewed on the subject) has assumed the role of former man of ‘State among the world’s great conductors. . So our recent interview with him avoided the subject of longevity entirely and instead focused on his thoughts on the repertoire for his upcoming Thursday-Saturday BSO concerts.
But we can’t resist sharing an anecdote from Alex Ross’ feature film in last summer’s New Yorker about the American-born Swedish maestro:
After the performance, I went backstage for what I assumed was a brief chat with Blomstedt. He looked like a bookish village pastor, his face without a sweat. I had resolved not to ask the obvious and stupid question: how could he still be so vigorous at his age? Some have credited his godly and sober habits: Raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he never drank or ate meat. But, as he told The Times’ Michael Cooper in 2017, “That’s not the reason. It’s a gift.” Blomstedt added wryly, “Churchill drank a lot of whiskey and smoked huge big cigars, and he lived to be about ninety years old.
In addition to the luck of the genetic draw, perhaps the 95-year-old’s reputed insatiable curiosity and tireless interactions with impressionable youngsters such as Tanglewood Fellows kept him alive. Fully booked until 2024, the traveling conductor emeritus of the orchestras of San Francisco, NDR and Leipzig will take a break in Boston just long enough to deliver one of his specialties, Bruckner’s Fourth, and, in the company of young pianist Martin Helmchen, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453.
Some questions and answers follow.
Jeffrey Gantz: You made a Bruckner Fourth recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 1981, for Denon. The liner notes are mostly in Japanese, but they confirm that you used the 1880 Novak version. On the other hand, the authority discography abruckner.com The website has this recording as the 1880 Haas version. Which version did you use then and which version will you lead in Boston? How much do the versions differ?
HB Maybe they’re both right. Because basically I surely used the Nowak version of 1878/1880. But I may have inserted some details from Haas. I have not been able to verify this now 40 years later. They concern very minor details, such as the use of a single flute instead of two flutes playing in unison. Or one horn instead of two horns in unison. Such variations are a daily orchestral routine in search of ideal balances. A slightly larger case of difference is found at the letter M in the second movement, where Haas lets the trombones and tuba play a final chord in C minor, and Nowak omits that chord, making the sound smoother and more lyrical.
In Boston next week we will use a new edition (2018) by Benjamin Korstvedt which has just been published by the Musikwissenschaftlicher Verlag in Vienna. They did it with the cooperation of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (and, by the way, they dedicated it to me). The most noticeable difference from the traditional Nowak edition can be heard in the last nine bars of the finale. Nowak includes a quotation from the main theme of the first movement, whereas the new edition omits it and instead leaves the schmetterne the horn triplets dominate the end. Both versions come from Bruckner himself.
How much has your vision of the Fourth changed since 1981?
HB: The phrasing is more detailed, the tempos are more logical, and I found a lot more drama in the symphony, especially in the finale. I see the finale basically as one big slow move – of course also with faster parts. I believe that Bruckner was quite right to shape the finale in this way, because the traditionally ‘slow’ second movement in this case is a rather flowing piece of music, marked ‘Andante quasi Allegretto’, so the finale is the only true “slow”. » movement of the symphony. Mahler would later take up this idea, turning the finales of his third and ninth symphonies into giant, moving adagios.
What do you think of the nickname “Romantic” and of Bruckner’s program for the symphony?
I think his instincts were correct there too, although his fantasies of “medieval towns at dawn” and “proud knights on horseback” are more typical of his time, and less useful today. But the way he uses the solo horn in the first movement and the “hunting horns” in the Scherzo are definitely “romantic”. The whole orchestra and its instruments are the same as those used by Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony 75 years earlier, but how different does it sound! In his imagination, he lived in a completely different world.
FLE: Are there any young conductors who understand Bruckner well?
Why not? Former conductors don’t have a monopoly on doing things right. Mistakes aren’t just for young people either. The main thing is that the musician seriously seeks the “right” tempo and does not just imitate others. When the tempo is coherent and logical, it gives the impression of being “right”.
Does Bruckner’s Fourth have affinities (or vice versa) with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453, the unique piece of the first half?
Yes, but it’s just a coincidence. As Bruckner in the second theme of the first movement lets a chickadee sing its “ti-ti-tuuut, ti-ti-tusi”), Mozart lets his favorite starling sing the whole theme of the rondo of this concerto. But I often pair a Bruckner symphony from not so long ago with a Mozart concerto. They are both typically Austrian composers, even though they lived a hundred years apart. They are both deeply rooted in Austrian popular culture and shaped by its traditions in church and theatre. A wonderful combination of simplicity and sophistication. And both are unmistakably individual. . . perfectly shaped by the time and style in which they lived.