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Blomstedt Conducts an All-Beethoven Concert

Herbert Blomstedt
Martin U.K. Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt

Saturday, January 30, 2021
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast from 2016, Herbert Blomstedt leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, as well as the Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Garrick Ohlsson.

Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 1
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Herbert Blomstedt talks with WCRB's Alan McLellan about the character of Beethoven and his own upbringing and early musical inspirations:


Alan McLellan [00:00:00] It seems like you have a great time when you're on the podium, is that right?

Herbert Blomstedt [00:00:04] Yeah, music is always enlivening. You know, our daily life is with the score and score comes alive when you look at it. But we also hear it, you know, it's a special joy. It doesn't lose meaning for us, even if we do it every day. It's always very enlivening and stimulating.

AM [00:00:29] I don't know if you've been thinking the same way about this program, but the program is probably one that you've done before and probably one that you will do again. I mean, the combination of the Beethoven First Piano Concerto and the Seventh Symphony.

HB [00:00:46] I don't recall it that I've done it before, but of course, I've done many Beethoven programs.

AM [00:00:50] But I guess my point is that these are familiar things. So you return to them and you still have a certain amount of...

HB [00:00:56] Oh yes. And I play this concerto with Garrick Ohlsson, I think, several times, you know, 15, 20, 30 years ago. I played many concertos with the Garrick Ohlsson. The first time was in Dresden when I was a music director of the Dresden orchestra, he came and played the Mozart Concerto Number 15 in B-flat. I was very impressed. And that was in the 80s, early 80s or late 70s even.

AM [00:01:23] Amazing that you have that long relationship. Is there something special about that connection that you have with him that makes it so you can work together?

HB [00:01:33] I always admired him. I admired him from the very beginning. And I played so many different kinds of music with him. I've played, I think, all the Beethoven concertos with him, both Brahms concertos, many Mozart concertos, with him. I played the Stenhammar Piano Concerto with him, a Swedish romantic composer, that he plays that, too. And I played the Wuorinen Piano Concerto with him, which was amazing that he has modern music too. And he, I haven't played with him, but I know he plays the Busoni Piano Concerto, an hour-long work. So his repertoire is - and I played all three Bartok concertos with him, even the First and Second, which is very rare.

AM [00:02:20] I'm always amazed that people can keep this much music in their minds and especially a soloist where you're so exposed.

HB [00:02:28] Incredible.

AM [00:02:29] Yeah, I was looking at several things online in preparation and your biography. You were, uh, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony for many years, and before that, Dresden, as you say, and the Swedish Radio Symphony and the Danish Radio Symphony and the Oslo Philharmonic. It seems like, in the earlier part of your career, Scandinavia was an important place for you. Is there something special about Scandinavia and the approach to music?

HB [00:02:58] I grew up in Scandinavia. I spent about 40 years living in Sweden as a student first and then as a music director until 1984. I lived in Stockholm and traveled to my orchestra in Dresden wherever they were. Since 1984, I was living in Switzerland, but Scandinavia's my background. I have a Swedish passport. I lived five years in Finland, which at that time was, uh, Swedish was even the official language in the country. But gradually, you know, it's become more Finnish and less Swedish. Today, it's practically only Finnish.

AM [00:03:45] The Finnish language is is prominent there.

HB [00:03:47] Yes, yes.

AM [00:03:49] The years you were in Finland, were they childhood years or early years?

HB [00:03:55] I started school in Finland. We lived in Helsinki. I started school when I was six years old. But it was a Swedish school because there was lots of Swedish culture still, especially in the southern parts, and all the leading university positions, they were still speaking Swedish, very much Swedish. But very fast, when they became independent, Swedish was pressed down intentionally. They wanted to be more and more Finnish. It still, it has to be bilingual. All the street names have to be in Finnish and Swedish. Only a question of time with Swedish will disappear completely.

AM [00:04:39] So you, you begin your music training in Finland as well then.

HB [00:04:44] Not really, well, I had my first piano lesson at the Swedish Academy, that's right. But my real musical education started only when we moved back to Sweden.

AM [00:04:54] And so you weren't interested in music until then?

HB [00:04:59] Not especially; I was more interested in soccer. My mother was a pianist, but she never pressed me, you know, to, "you have to practice more." But she encouraged me, of course, to practice more. It was only when I got a really first class violin teacher in Gothenburg that it really caught on. I was 12 or 13. I played the violin before, but I had not a good teacher and did not inspire me at all. But when we moved to Gothenburg, I was, well, 12, 13, something like that. I got a really wonderful violin teacher. And of course, Gothenburg had the wonderful symphony orchestra and the concert hall is almost as good as the Symphony Hall in Boston. It's fantastic acoustics. So here I caught fire for music.

AM [00:05:54] And then you, in your biography that I read, it mentioned the Basiliensis, the training ground, Schola Cantorum where Paul Sacher was prominent. Was that a big influence in your life?

HB [00:06:11] Yes, we moved to Stockholm when I was 17. I started to study at the conservatory in Stockholm. I heard the gamba quartet of Schola Cantorum Basiliensis under the leadership of August Wenzinger. I never had any contact with Paul Sacher.

[00:06:36] He was not so much involved with the Schola Cantorum. He was the conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Basel, and was a great, great figure of music because he was a rich man and supported very much composers at that time. And to his memory, there is a fantastic library in Basel today with all the manuscripts of Stravinsky, and Hindemith, and so on, Bartok. He was a personal friend with these people and commissioned music from them, which he then performed with his Chamber Orchestra of Basel. But perhaps he was on the name list of the Schola Cantorum, but he was not the director of that at all. And he was not particularly involved in the old music scene. That was August Wenzinger, Ina Lohr, Eduard Müller, the harpsichord player, was fantastic harpsichord player. And August Wenzinger, who was a cello, he was first solo cello of the Basel Symphony Orchestra, but he stepped down there to devote himself only to old music. And he created a gamba quartet. Well, he played the descant gamba, and four ladies, three ladies play the other instruments. And I heard that in Stockholm when they came. They play music by Marin Marais, by Dowland and Byrd. I was fascinated.

AM [00:08:07] And at the time that was not done. That music was not known really.

HB [00:08:13] No, no. That was pioneer work. It really started in England with Dolmetsch, who started to build harpsichords, build clavichords, and so on. He had a workshop in London where he was really committed to all music. So the movement really started in England and then spread to Europe, to France, and to Germany. But the gamba quartet of Schola Cantorum was really the leading ensemble for this kind of music. And what they played, with fretted gambas, no vibrato, and there's just a sound, a pure sound of these instruments. And the music was fascinating. So what I did, I have to go there and study.

AM [00:09:05] And when you went there to study, did you take up the gamba or anything? Were you studying all the different instruments?

HB [00:09:13] No, I did not take it. I know I did play some recorder together with my children, but I studied with Wenzinger, the performance practice, studied the scores of Brandenburg concertos and so on. He was a wonderful influence. And I studied Renaissance music with Ina Lohr, who was a fantastic person, something like Nadia Boulanger in Paris, you know, on fire for this kind of music. She was treating her students like her children. She could be very harsh on them. You have to be very, very, very concentrated. And you must say goodbye to many other kinds of music in order to concentrate and make progress in this. She was a great influence on me, fantastic people, I don't think she had any children of her own, just like Nadia Boulanger, I studied with her, too, by the way, and since they had no children, their students were their children.

AM [00:10:11] Absolutely. Yes, that's true for many teachers. So you, obviously your career has not been in the early music world, but has that had an influence because that training was so important to you?

HB [00:10:25] Oh, very much so. I was a musicologist also. I started as a musicologist, really before I started conducting. And I edited the old music and I wrote a couple of theses is about Bach. Father Bach, and Christian Bach, his youngest son. So I was very much involved in that. And that has colored, of course, my music making of other works, also. I was a violinist primarily and the solos sonatas of Bach were my Bible. I knew these sonatas for unaccompanied violin by heart, even when I was in school. And no music that was not as good as that I would accept. I was very idealistic. When I went to a symphony concert two times a week, I could never get enough and I paid my season ticket myself. I sold magazines to get money to buy my season ticket.

AM [00:11:28] How old were you at this time?

HB [00:11:30] Oh, 12, 13 until I graduated from high school. It was a fantastic time. And every Sunday we played string quartets at home.

AM [00:11:40] This must have been just after the war, is that correct?

HB [00:11:43] During the war.

AM [00:11:45] So difficult.

HB [00:11:45] I graduated from high school in '45, just as the war was over. But it was in Sweden, so we had no war. Sweden and Switzerland were neutral countries, so we were very fortunate in that.

AM [00:12:00] So you could go to Switzerland to study early music and be a kind of a safe environment, relatively.

HB [00:12:08] I did that only after the war in '56, I went to Schola Cantorum.

AM [00:12:12] I met and had the privilege to interview Eric Ericson. Did you know him? Because he talked about that as well.

HB [00:12:24] Sure, he studied also at Schola Cantorum. And in fact, he and a few of his comrades, like the composers, show the way for me. I was 10 years younger and came after them, but they were a great inspiration for me. I never sang in a chorus because he was all finished at the conservatory when I entered. I didn't know him at that time, but it was later. We worked very much together. He prepared choruses for me when we did choral works...

AM [00:12:59] Because you were at the Swedish Radio Symphony and the Danish symphony as well, yeah. But you have not steered clear necessarily of choral music. I understand you've done some work with Brahms and of course, the Brahms Requiem is a very important part of your repertoire. Is that something that you treasure, the choral experience?

HB [00:13:26] Yes, very much so. But I had some sort of conversion about choral music, about vocal music, because, by nature, I am an instrumentalist, a violinist. And the world of the string quartet was my private world. But during my high school years, I also started to play the organ because in high school, every morning at that time, we had morning worship at eight o'clock to eight fifteen. I don't think our teachers were especially religious and the students also not particularly religious, but it was common to start the day together with some serious matter. And it all always started with, eh, we sang a song from the Lutheran hymnal with organ accompaniment, and a student played the organ. And then the teacher would read something, you know, from a book or occasionally make a free speech. But usually they were not very interested. They just read something from a book and we all slept, you know, but we sang, did sing a Lutheran hymn, one or two stanzas, every morning. And they needed, the young man who was playing the organ graduated, and they had no organist.

So my music teacher at school knew that I was a good violinist, so, [he said], "You can play the organ too. I give you the key to my church. You can go and practice." So I got a huge key, you know, it was about feet long iron key, you know, these old things. And I got that and I went there, you know, and during weekends and played for hours in his church. And I learned the repertoire, Bach organ works, and I discovered that Bach has written for organ also, not only these violin sonatas I knew. I was in heaven, you know. So I was an organist also. So Bach became central to my music. I didn't dream of being a conductor until very late, but I did dream of leading a string quartet or being a cantor in a church where I could perform a Bach cantata every Sunday. It didn't come that way. But Bach always remain central to me.

AM [00:15:48] And this is how you were kind of converted, so to speak, to vocal music.

HB [00:15:54] Yeah, I can tell you some curious details about that. In that time radio was still in its baby years. And there was only one program in Sweden, one program. So this program had to get everything all day. And at five o'clock there was a recording hour. And it always, we listened to that while we were having dinner. And it always started with an overture or symphony movement and then perhaps a movement from a chamber music thing and perhaps a Schubert lied and so on. And about midway in this program, which was an hour long, there was an aria of an opera. And we hated that. They didn't sing in tune. [sings out of tune]

[00:16:54] "That's not music. Stop that!" So we turned it off. Not that we hated opera as such, but it was not musical. You know, we were trained to play in tune and not, and that this was accepted. We thought it was a very bad style. So I had my preconceptions about vocal music. But when I came to the conservatory in Stockholm, it was mandatory to sing in the chorus for one semester. Everyone also violinists and anybody had to sing in the chorus. And the first time I joined that chorus, they sang this motet by Bach, "Singet dem Herrn." It's an eight-part motet, wonderful big work. And my eyes were open and my ears opened. This is fantastic music and it can be sung well, if you don't [sings out of tune] and just sing pure tones [sings precisely and in tune] and not [sings out of tune]. So I was converted. I thought it was just wonderful. And the first time I ever conducted was Brahms Requiem. So, it was...

AM [00:18:12] And that was with your school.

HB [00:18:14] It was with the conservatory chorus. There was a death in the royal family and with short notice they put on several special services in the Stockholm churches. And we had just worked on the Brahms Requiem in the chorus at the conservatory. So they said, you can go sing, you have that already fixed, you can, tomorrow you can go and do that. And I was asked to conduct. And that was, of course, a very important experience for me.

AM [00:18:46] I'm sure that piece is, just has so much richness and the depth of the composer's thinking is so amazing in that music.

[00:18:57] I wanted to ask you about the Seventh Symphony. It seems like it's everybody's favorite. Does that make it difficult to bring out something new in it, or is that your objective?

HB [00:19:10] Yeah, to clear some misconception, my object is never to bring something new. Or, if you understand me right, I always try to bring something new, but not for the sake of newness, to make an impression, or to show that I'm different. I try to come down to the real core of the music. And that makes it new every time, because every time you discover new things. And I also try, I'm influenced by many, many ideals. I admire many conductors of different sorts. And they also have an influence on the young person. But little by little, you understand, you have to do some things that comes mainly from you. If you just try to imitate somebody, it's not really truthful. And when you start to have a little bit more confidence, that is what you are doing. You're not forgetting your ideals, but you are starting from scratch, from the score.

[00:20:15] And the scores that are so rich in detail, there's always lots of new things to discover. Every time I pick up a symphony that I have played perhaps many, many times - the Seventh Symphony, I'm sure I've played it 100 times - I discover something new. And looking for the last few days again, and I discover new things, even now. I'll illustrate this, not in the Seventh Symphony, but in the Eroica [Third Symphony], which perhaps is the second most played symphony by him. In the Funeral March, in the second movement, there's the second theme that the strings play in E-flat, which is sort of a relief from the somber funeral mode in the beginning, to get a little bit hope ... [sings theme] ... that passage. I was reading, perhaps a year ago, I was reading the critical commentary, which is a book of about a hundred pages where every bar is discussed according to the sources, and there are dozens of different sources that sometimes are contradictory, even if they come from the same composer.

[00:21:44] And the editor, of course, had to decide, you know, on one. He cannot tell in the music, you can play in 10 different ways. He has to decide, "I recommend this source." But if you are really conscientious, you should go to the commentary. It's not sure that your decision is the same as editors. And in this case, it was not. At the top note, there is an accent. [sings] On the top, note is an accent, and the editor says, "In the autograph the accent is so long that it looks like a diminuendo." But he says, "I think we have to be [conscious that] sometimes these accents get very long and what he really means is an accent." So he decided that it is an accent, even if it's a little bit long here. But he's very honest and that is what he should do. So he knows every variation possible.

[00:22:49] I was in Vienna playing with the Vienna Philharmonic at that time, so I think, "I'll go up and look in the parts. And I got all the parts which Beethoven used, the same part with his corrections, in blue pencil. He made corrections in the part. He conducted this several times. And sure enough, in this bar, it's a very long accent. It looks like a diminuendo. So I decided he must have meant a diminuendo. And in one of the parts that was even written in letters "Decrescendo." It cannot be clear enough. He wanted the diminuendo, which means when you play this, it should be [sings]. And it's in no printed music, but it's clearly what Beethoven wanted.

AM [00:23:52] And it makes it a completely different music.

HB [00:23:55] It makes it different music. And of course, [sings] is another variation of the melody, it goes one note higher. So the expression is different. Well, that goes over all the time. That's our job, to come as close to the sources as possible and do the decision that appears to be the most plausible to us, even if it's not the editor's decision.

AM [00:24:20] Yes. And then the First Piano Concerto of Beethoven. This is young Beethoven, so it's very Haydn, uh, Mozart's feeling to it in many ways. Does that, uh, do you approach it differently for that reason?

HB [00:24:36] It's such a wonderful concerto. It's right, Haydn was still alive when it was written, and he was alive fifteen years afterwards, even. Beethoven studied with him and was a great influence on him. But of course, even in earlier works, you find Beethoven, the lion claw, is there. Some amazing things, above all, no dynamically crescendos, with sudden piano. [sings]

[00:25:14] Lots of surprises, a la Haydn, but much more daring than Haydn. And Beethoven's a romantic by nature, a revolutionary by nature. He was even revolutionary a little bit politically. Uh, he sympathized very much with the French Revolution. He was by no way a communist. I must make that clear. I think he would never have subscribed to any communist idea. But he, he, his feeling was every man have to be equal. He was a little bit of noble descent himself - VAN Beethoven - and many of his friends were noblemen, many of his students were noblemen. And he was dependent on them. They gave him money and he dedicated many of his works to his friends, nobleman. But one has the feeling that he also got, very easy, enough of them.

[00:26:21] There's a wonderful joke that I have to tell you, in this respect: he was introduced to some friends who were admirers of him, and they were introduced as, Count So-and-so and Duke So-and-so and Baron So-and-so. And there were some lesser nobility. They were just estate owners. And here is estate owner Lichnowsky and here is estate owner Razumovsky. And Beethoven got mad. And when it was his turn to tell who he was, he said, "Ludwig van Beethoven, brain owner!" [laughs].

[00:27:01] He felt that they did not appreciate enough the individual's, uh, qualities.

AM [00:27:09] "I have a brain. I exist.".

HB [00:27:12] These stories told by Schindler, his factotum, and it tells a little bit about his, you know, his choleric temperament...

AM [00:27:23] And his pride.

HB [00:27:24] His pride. Yes. But a fine pride. He was very humble person when it comes to his work. He knew his worth, but he also knew that he's not perfect. He was always working towards perfection. I admire that. And I think everybody listen to his music and hear that this is the way the music goes. It strives toward perfection, towards the ideal.

AM [00:27:58] Herbert Blomstedt, thank you so much for your time today. I do appreciate it.

HB [00:28:01] Thank you.