Arts Under Review: Performance: Blomstedt’s Distinctive Style

Herbert Blomstedt, conductor emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony, led four performances earlier this month of some of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works: the Piano Concerto no. 1 and the Symphony no. 6, the so-called Pathétique. At the February 16 concert, the conductor presented the two masterpieces with an undeniably unique style that was often deeply moving but also occasionally unsettling. Blomstedt’s interpretations were heavy, broad and masculine which accentuated the symphony’s torment especially well. But too often, especially in the fast movements of the works, the conductor aimed for concentrated sound and texture at the expense of lyricism and melody-driven phrasing. Ironically, Blomstedt’s legato is stunning and lush, and was exceptional in the opening movement of the symphony.

Nikolai Lugansky was the piano soloist for the evening, and gave an impressive performance. His technique was highly polished, precise and bold. Lugansky established a strong presence in the opening movement with his large sound and continued to impress, especially in the rapid passages of the second movement. The main gripe I had with the concerto was the tempo of the first movement: it was too slow to properly portray the sweeping grandeur, especially in the orchestral tutti. The brass section, crucial in both works, fell short of expectations as well. Again, in the first movement, the brass was not adequately balanced in sound and came across as too throaty. I suspect overzealous coaxing by Blomstedt caused this to happen.

The same brass problem would continue to plague the symphony, especially in the march-like third movement, which culminates in a rousing descending scale. But brass aside, Blomstedt’s heady and rich stroke highlighted the intense, emotive qualities that give the symphony its nickname. His hauntingly beautiful phrasing and handling of the strings in the finale of the symphony concluded the concert. All in all, Blomstedt delivered a satisfying and distinctive performance.

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