on 3 January 2013
This recording was made live in the Great Hall of the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, in 2011 (exactly when in 2011 I cannot say, as the booklet only provides such details in Japanese). It is Blomstedt's second recording of the piece, the first also being with the Leipzig Orchestra in 1999 (Decca), a performance that I have not heard. In this most recent outing, Blomstedt uses the Cohrs edition of the three movement score, published in 2000 (which corrects some printing errors in the Nowak edition of 1951, but is substantially the same as the Nowak).
This is a taut reading, and, as one might expect, Blomstedt eschewes idiosyncrasy. And yet, such is the conductor's assiduous attention to shaping of phrase, dynamic contrasts and preparation of climaxes, combined with the exceptionally refined sound that he draws from the orchestra, that the performance never sounds unyielding or superficial.
The first movement (24'13) opens in relatively straightforward fashion, the conductor seemingly more focused on cleanly articulating the fragments that build up to the powerful unison theme and setting a basic pulse than evoking a wondrous atmosphere. The second theme immediately showcases the quality of the Leipzig strings - leanish but supple - and yet there is a certain coolness here, a lofty poise notwithstanding the conductor's obvious concern for sculpting lyrical lines, and Blomstedt is keen to maintain a flowing progression to the stern conclusion. Though emotional control is very much in evidence, Blomstedt is certainly not uncaring. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the violent eruption that occurs towards the conclusion of the first theme's development (16'24 - 17'24), the conductor fully conjures a sense of isolation, drawing a spare and affecting beauty from first and second violins, their antiphonal placement helping to highlight the questioning, back and forth exchange that occurs on the way to the music's disintegration.
The movement's climaxes, while controlled, have scale (aided by the open and full sonics), intensity and concentration. The restatement of the unison theme (from 13'55), for example, is impressive, with tremendously furious strings accompanying brass that achieve a massive yet unforced and smooth sonority.
An especially notable feature of this movement is Blomstedt's preparation for the final peroration. From the eerie opening of the coda, the layered scoring and shifts in dynamics are masterfully handled to build tension, leaving plenty in reserve for the peroration; that swaying figuration played by first and second violins, heard previously at 16'24ff and now accompanying woodwinds and timpani, and soon joined by brass and throbbing lower strings, achieves a sweep that even Karajan, in both of his recordings for DG, does not match (again, the antiphonal placement of violins is helpful here). When the climax hits, it is noticeable that, while the brass can be clearly heard, they are firmly woven into the enveloping string based texture; the impression, while perhaps not one of "terror" or some such emotion, is nonetheless of something immense, unsettling, unfathomable.
Piercing woodwinds and stabbing accents produce an implacable result in the Scherzo (10'01). The trio, on the fast side, provides no relief whatsoever.
The rarefied beauty and flowing tempos of Blomstedt's Adagio (23'05) (24'20 including applause) will not be to all tastes. Mind you, Blomstedt is comparable to Walter (Columbia SO - 1959) and is nearly three minutes slower than Schuricht (VPO - 1961). Be that as it may, there is a sense that Blomstedt, like others (eg Rattle), rejects the idea of this movement as a farewell to life. The first part of the second subject, for example, is certainly solemn but does not have the heavy resignation that one encounters in some readings (eg Giulini [CSO & VPO], Luisi [Dresden], Wand [NDR vol 2]). Likewise, the grindingly dissonant climax has been more crushing in other performances. Yet, the refinement of Blomstedt's rendition nonetheless resonates with premonitions of other worldly regions. The impression, I find, is ultimately ambiguous, which is perhaps as it should be.
Blomstedt has his orchestra firing on all cylinders. Particularly noteworthy are the strings, producing a smooth, crystalline tone which complements the conductor's refined approach, and the bright and focused woodwinds.
The recorded sound is also very fine. It combines clarity with warmth and a natural sounding perspective. One particularly appreciates the recording's quality when comparing it to other recent performances of this work, such as Rattle's with the BPO (although I should point out that I have not heard the SACD version of Rattle's recording). Though warm and full, the Rattle recording is easily exceeded in transparency by the subject recording