CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 20 APRIL 2006
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60. Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 5, Op. 50, FS 97. (Herbert Blomstedt, cond.)
The exchange rate, thought the critic of the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. Surely that was why Carl Nielsen had headed to Berlin in late 1922 to conduct, among other works, the German première of his Fifth Symphony: to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate. And this journalist was having none of it. "We want no such invasion as this," he protested. "We have enough bad composers of our own....!"
Herbert Blomstedt ranks high on the list of conductors who have ensured Nielsen a posthumous reputation far different from what the anonymous newspaperman might have deemed appropriate. Blomstedt has recorded the complete Nielsen symphonies not once, but twice, and this weekend at Severance Hall he leads the Cleveland Orchestra in the Fifth—arguably the best of the bunch.
His interpretation of the work, however, seems to have emotionally narrowed since he recorded it with the San Francisco Symphony in 1987. From the first moments of Thursday evening's performance one sensed an almost clinical restraint. That's not a bad thing where the opening viola figure is concerned—Nielsen apparently thought of the symphony's beginning as the embodiment of a sort of mental vacuity, rather than anything more customarily atmospheric. But it's a little more difficult to justify features like the reticence of a couple of important timpani interjections, one in the first movement, one in the second. And, under Blomstedt's baton, the "tranquillo" marking some six minutes into the opening "Tempo giusto" seemed less an interpretive guidepost than an indicator of what the score had achieved on its own: a musical parallel to a phenomenon seen all too often—the use of a car's turn signal to indicate the successful completion of a lane change.
Blomstedt's interpretation of the Nielsen's companion piece—the Beethoven Fourth—exhibited a similar excess of moderation. The effect was exacerbated by a certain podginess in the orchestral sound that tended to obscure occasional details: key bassoon passages in the first-movement exposition, for example.
I don't want to overemphasize the effects of these shortcomings. These are, despite their limitations, accomplished performances. Concertgoers will likely find both the Beethoven and the Nielsen amply powerful. And it's easy to sense an attentive and lively intelligence behind both interpretations.
But one might have expected more athletic imaginative leaps from Blomstedt, who happens, after all, to be one of the few conductors to merit mention in the pages of Sports Illustrated. It seems that, at a San Francisco Symphony concert in 1989, when the Giants were facing the Cubs in a National League playoff game, Blomstedt took advantage of the pause between two movements of the Nielsen Second to share some news conveyed to him from offstage: "The Giants," he announced to the audience, "have won 11 to 3." At this, a quick-witted horn player was heard to remark, "The maestro must be slipping. He used to be able to conduct the Nielsen without a score."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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