Those who like meat-and-potatoes familiarity in their concert repertoire could not have been more pleased yesterday afternoon, when San Francisco Symphony Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt began his second round of concert appearances for his annual two-week visit to Davies Symphony Hall. The program consisted entirely of two of the most familiar symphonies throughout the full scope of music history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 550 in G minor and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) in E-flat major. Familiar as this music may have been, Blomstedt brought an energetic freshness to both of them, teasing out no end of details that could easily have previously gone unnoticed.
Attentive readers may have noticed that the Mozart symphony was given two dates. It was originally composed in 1788, but Mozart added the two clarinet parts for a pair of concerts given in Vienna in April of 1791, a little over half a year prior to his death in early December. This is the version that is usually performed, and Carey Bell and Jerome Simas were on hand for that purpose.
Most important, however, was that Blomstedt followed his usual practice of having the first and second violins face each other. While many listeners enjoy this symphony for the dramatically dark qualities of its minor key, the overall texture tends to remind one that Mozart was particularly in his element when writing for string quartet. There is no end of elegant detail in the four primary string parts; and it is only the need to balance against the eight winds (including the two clarinets) that those string parts need some (but not too much) reinforcement.
Blomstedt clearly knew how to set his numbers for the best balance. However, once that balance was achieved, he exploited it to advantage, consistently teasing out the many ways in which the lines of Mozart’s counterpoint would play against each other in an ongoing flow of energy. (That sense of energy flow was even present at the Andante tempo of the second movement.) Furthermore, Blomstedt knew how to add a spatial element to that flow. His arrangement of the string section allowed the attentive listener to track the migration of thematic elements from one set of instruments to another.
If that was not enough to provide a new way of approaching familiar material, Blomstedt also decided that the Menuetto portion of the third movement could do with having its repeats taken during its return after the movement’s Trio. One could see the smiles on many of the faces in the ensemble. The players clearly enjoyed this twist; and the sparkle in their eyes seemed to say to the audience “You didn’t expect that, did you?”
All of that clarity that disclosed every one of Mozart’s details to its best advantage served the Beethoven performance equally well. Once again Blomstedt was as sensitive to the spatial elements of his performance as he was to the many unique elements of Beethoven’s thematic vocabulary and his techniques for developing those elements. It was also significant that Blomstedt appreciated the “assai” (rather) modifier for the Adagio assai tempo of the funeral march. This was a procession that proceeded at a respectful pace without dragging its feet. By holding back on those elements that can descend too easily into the ominous, Blomstedt directed attention, instead, to thematic interplay and the rhetorical impact of Beethoven’s approach to dynamic levels. Taken as a whole, this was an account of the entire symphony in which no dramatic element was neglected while, at the same time, no dramatic element was overplayed.