Opening and closing a week of nonagenarians, the London Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Haitink (ninety) and the Orchestre de Paris with Herbert Blomstedt (ninety-one) opted for interestingly similar programming and young soloist choices, the former favouring Austrian Concerto and Symphony, the latter German equivalents. Listening to these old titans has been a privilege. You realise, with something of a shock, that one way or the other they've coloured near enough two generations of our lives. They've always been around, it seems, honing their skills, stamping their authority, recording … to give us now the Indian-summer glories of their wisdom. Of the two, Haitink is the slower and more measured in stance, inclined to recline, baton undemonstratively in control. Blomstedt is the sprightlier, almost bounding towards the podium, standing firm, dispensing with a chair (“that's for old men”), using only his hands to shape and express. The mastery of both, their rapport with the players, is breathtaking.
Travelling the World, re-living core repertory with great orchestras in grand venues, has become something of a Blomstedt trademark in recent years. He does it supremely well, supremely freshly. His Beethoven, Bruckner and Brahms do not disappoint. He relishes every minute, he reinvents the experience. The elixir of youth is his.
This Paris concert, following four rehearsals and a first run the night before, offered Brahms on an imperially spacious scale. The outer movements (the first with exposition repeat) towered, now craggy now conquering. The middle two, more intermezzo-like, unfolded like poems touched with the brush of a Waldmüller canvas. Blomstedt has always been a determined structuralist, building upwards from deeply rooted foundations. He got a fabulous gravity out of the Paris Orchestra, each fundamental vibrating the room as much as setting off harmonics. He's also a colourist. With him Brahms has never been the Victorian/Edwardian composer of heavy textures but an imaginarium of voices across the registers, dealing in all shades from dawn to dusk. The landmark solos – violin, oboe, clarinet – shone with new-found transparency, clarity enhancing poignancy. That haunting, pre-Straussian stroke in the introduction to the Finale when, above shimmering pianissimo strings, the horn enters answered by flute, forte passionato, sent shivers – a Robert Simpson moment, telescope scanning the heavens, jewels of light for the holding, time all but suspended.
The pacing of the performance, energy without haste or theatrics, held the attention. Likewise the tightness of ensemble, the impeccable judgement of rests and pauses, not a breath or comma extended unduly or cut too soon. With players on the edge of their seats, watching, listening and responding, taking their spots, making chamber music, accompanying, scaling the summits, Blomstedt the old eagle soaring ever higher, here was mature speech and vintage musicianship of iconic delivery, a Shakespearean drama unfolding before us. Rarely, in the pulse-quickening closing pages, has C-major been so emotionally cathartic, so sonorously sculptured. "Let there be light."
If Brahms's First Symphony was an hour-stopping masterclass of interpretation and execution, so, in a different way, was Mendelssohn's brief First Piano Concerto, premiered in Munich in 1831. This linked-movement, fleet-fingered calling-card, all about storming double-octaves, glistening semiquavers, lightly floated tunes, fire and vivacity, and a lissom E-major heart, not a Classical cadential trill in sight, tests the best. Not all the keyboard patterns lie comfortably (the Finale's gapped semiquavers are a trap for the unwary or poor of articulation) and the risk of Czerny-fying is high. Like the Beethoven C-major it long used to be a vehicle for students, less a platform for hardened virtuosos.
Martin Helmchen, who won the 2001 Clara Haskil Competition, is a schooled, cultured pianist. He gave us the notes in a disciplined way, relishing the bravura passages, offering sensitive insights in the central Andante and lyric hold-backs of the outer sections, happily willing to join in for the final tutti. Perhaps some of the dynamics might have been broadened, maybe the swelling hairpins of the bass-register scales in the first movement could have been less self-effacing (stressing the sforzando bite). But generally, as in his intimately lit Bach encore, there was little to disquieten, his touch clean and polished, gratefully distant from the metalled autobahn of Yuja Wang – who a decade ago in Verbier gave Masur such a clattering scramble with this piece. Using reduced forces – antiphonal violins, double basses and cellos to the left, period timpani to the right (replaced with a modern set in the Brahms) – Blomstedt crafted elegant support, recessed as needed, ringing and strong in the horns and trumpets leading into and out of the Andante, the strings (one of the Orchestre de Paris's strengths) gently lifted in their more expressive counterpoints, each pizzicato phrased and warm. Mendelssohn's bright precociousness, nearer Hummel than Chopin, was the understated subtext.