Monday, February 22, 2016

Berwald & Dvořák with Blomstedt at Severance

Herbert Blomstedt returned to Severance Hall this past weekend to conduct a compact program of Berwald and Dvořák.

At 88, Blomstedt is a remarkably spry gentleman. In appearance, he reminds me of Michael Gough, the British actor best known for playing Alfred the butler in the Tim Burton Batman movies.

The program began with Berwald’s Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonie singulière”), which was unfamiliar to me.  I heard it on the radio decades ago, but didn’t remember one bar of it.  The work was never performed during Berwald’s lifetime, and has seldom been heard since his death.  Despite Blomstedt’s advocacy, it was easy to understand the reasons for the work’s rarity: The piece lacks the dramatic “through-line” that the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and the later symphonies of Mozart possess.  Rather, Berwald’s construction seems to consist of a collection of unmemorable themes thrown together and developed rather clumsily - if skillfully orchestrated.  The central movement is a case in point: It begins with an Adagio, then a rather crude tympani strike announces a faster section, then the Adagio theme returns. While a three movement symphony with a central movement that combines the characteristics of a slow movement with a scherzo is unusual, it’s hardly unique.  Rachmaninoff did the same with his 3rd Symphony, and with greater finesse. The bulk of the finale consists of a vigorous presentation of a C minor theme, which then switches to major in a manner that is far from convincing so that there is no sense of triumph.

Dvořák's Symphony No. 7 was markedly more successful. There are those who consider the 7th to be the greatest of Dvořák's symphonies, although the 9th (aka, the “New World”) retains its popularity.  While the 9th is identified with America, the 7th is firmly in the Central European tradition and parts seem as if it could have sprung from Brahms’ pen.  Blomstedt chose sensible tempos, balanced each section beautifully, and paid particular attention to dynamics, which vividly characterized each episode without disrupting the whole.  The audience was brought to its feet after the finale, and Blomstedt was kind enough to single out players and sections for their own share of applause.  As the program was a bit short, the audience was rewarded with an appropriate encore: Dvořák's Slavonic Dance in G minor, in a rollicking performance.

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