Brahms’ and Blomstedt’s Uncompromising Vision at Tanglewood
Mozart, Symphony no. 35, K. 385 (“Haffner”) conducted by Gemma New
Beethoven, Leonore Overture no. 3, op. 72, conducted by Yu An Chang
Brahms, Symphony no. 4, op. 98, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Ozawa Hall, July 16, 2018
Brahms’ Fourth must stand with a very small handful of other works at the apex of symphonic composition. It represents the essence of “symphonism,” that is, the use of the fully developed romantic orchestra as a unified, full-throated body expressing a completely coherent and integrated musical discourse, in serious purpose comparable to great works of philosophical thought. It is difficult not to think in philosophical terms when encountering this work, especially as performed by the TMC Orchestra under the hands of nonagenarian Herbert Blomstedt, whose control over the flow of such expansive structures is notable among today’s conductors. Words like “austere,” “severe,” “dark,” and “stern” appear regularly in the literature to warn listeners that they are in for a challenging experience with this symphony. One could add “sustained,” “coherent,” “integrated,” “interconnected,” “deeply moving” and, finally, “tragic.” There are few other symphonies that insist on the minor modality to the bitter end: Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 (“La Passione”), Mahler’s Sixth (“Tragic”), and Vaughan-Williams’ Fourth and Sixth may be the best-known examples, and only Haydn displays the same structural necessity and lack of ambivalence about such a conclusion as Brahms.
In the final movement, the clear outlines of the chaconne, patterned after Bach’s example, ensure that the powerful rush to the concluding minor harmony feels predestined. As in the Bach, the middle section contains contrasting material, ushered in by the remarkable minor-key flute solo that plumbs the lowest register of that instrument in an elegiac dance evoking for some the image of a dancer on a Grecian urn. This is followed by a brass chorale in major, the warmest and most consoling moment in the movement, perhaps juxtaposing the individual’s longing for a better past with some kind of communal consolation (see the text of the second movement of the German Requiem for a possible musical-verbal equivalent to this moment). Listeners will intuit that a recapitulation is waiting, and in this case, one that redoubles the intensity of the opening to the point of fury, including a demonic section with (unintentional?) echoes of the Witch’s Sabbath section of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” The possibility of consolation is left behind as the composer faces his and our shared fate without blinking.
Herbert Blomstedt, at age 90, conducted on his feet without baton or chair. He did not micro-manage the orchestra, mostly addressing it as whole and gaining a rich, unified sonority from the players who responded alertly to every variation in his gestures. Blomstedt looked like a Prospero commanding the waves of the sea, first to rise higher, then to subside. The oceanic flow of the music never abated, even in the gentler moments of lyricism. This is a conductor who conceives of scores in terms of shapes, overall piece being built up through the careful shaping of individual sections and phrases. Unlike other conductors (e.g. Christoph Eschenbach, whose 2011 performance with the BSO was reviewed in these pages) Blomstedt maintains an unwavering pulse; shaping occurs through dynamics rather than a variable beat. But there is nothing mechanical in this inflexibility; rather, it is a way to display what can be termed the ‘macro-rhythms’ of the music, a dimension of enormous importance for Brahms.
Brahms adhered to a Viennese classical concept of phrasing inherited mostly from Haydn with a four-bar unit as the norm but with possibilities for expansions to five, six, or seven bars. On this concept Brahms built a flexible phrase-rhythm and sense of downbeat, which is often stretched or compressed (again on the precedents of Haydn and Mozart), thereby creating temporarily shifted meters which can feel disorienting or even momentarily chaotic to listeners. Brahms exercises a rigorous sense of responsibility about this practice: the balance of phrase is always restored, in the same way that tonal composers who introduce dissonances into their harmonies, however extended they may be, will eventually resolve them. For Brahms, the resolution of rhythmic dissonance generates a dynamic form that drives the music forward to its final moments. It is this powerful dimension of the music that Blomstedt consistently emphasizes. In my review of Eschenbach’s performance, I praised his rhythmic flexibility, describing how the expressive intensity of detail created a flow of emotion that drove the larger form. But this approach can be dangerous in the wrong hands: I think of a Tanglewood performance by Seiji Ozawa of Brahms’ Second Symphony from the early ‘80’s in which each phrase was so lovingly shaped that there was no momentum left to carry the musical thought from one moment to the next; the larger forms felt disconnected and endless. (On the same program, there was a Fourth Symphony that was rhythmically rigid to the point of harshness, a serious misrepresentation of this work.)
Blomstedt’s approach was the polar opposite. Individual phrases were never indulged, however beautifully they were shaped. Their consequent phrases arrived with the inevitability of the next macro-rhythmic pulse, keeping our attention on the large flow and the ultimate destination of the music. This structural momentum even carried across the boundaries of individual movements; there were no rhetorical flourishes to final chords, not even the very last one. The music possessed a stoic beauty that was fully seconded by the orchestral players, all of whom were fully caught up in the spirit of the performance.
This summer’s two assistants shared the program, providing a study in contrasting styles of conducting. Gemma New’s reading of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony was limited by the decision to use the orchestra’s full complement of strings, too many to do justice to Mozart’s demands for differentiated articulation and dynamics; even the quiet passages felt too loud, and the delicate separations of short phrases and contrasts between staccato and legato were underplayed. This was, therefore, an old-fashioned style of Mozart that was nevertheless effective partly because of the straight-forward style of this middle-period work, originally intended as a serenade, composed in 1782. Also interesting was the choice not to repeat the exposition of the first movement, but to repeat both halves of the second, shifting the center of gravity there and indicating that this Andante may be the most subtle and original of its movements.
Yu An Chang, this summer’s other Conducting Fellow, conducted an intensely operatic performance of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture no. 3, the one often heard as the prelude to Act III of “Fidelio.” Chang’s physical intensity on the podium translated directly into highly charged playing that pointed up pictorial and narrative elements, bringing out the episodic quality of this opera in miniature, from evocations of Florestan’s cell in the beginning, to the rescue by the deus ex machina to the ecstatic reunion of husband and wife. Mr. Chang’s up-coming tenure as BSO Assistant Conductor should offer more opportunities to enjoy his dynamic style.
Finally, a word of appreciation for this orchestra: while its life-span (especially this early in the summer) does not permit it to fully develop its own sound or networks of communication that established ensembles use to achieve stylistic homogeneity, refined balance, and ensemble character, their individual skills and eagerness to accommodate each conductor produces a satisfying orchestral experience enhanced by a palpable excitement about performing under the direction of figures such as Maestro Blomstedt or the talented rising generation of conductors. At Tanglewood both age and youth offer their own rewards.