First published in The Herald on 27 August, 2016
It was a weird way to kick off a two-day residency by one of the world’s great symphony orchestras: 15 musicians on stage gathered around a harpsichord to play Bach’s E Major Violin Concerto with violinist Julian Rachlin hammering out the solo part like a pastiche of overheated pre-baroque-revivalism. I’m not convinced he knew the music all that well given how clunky his corners were and how forced his delivery. It takes some doing to make a joyous piece sound quite so shouty.
Meanwhile conductor Herbert Blomstedt, a whip of a thing aged 89, brought supreme grace and efficiency to the podium. His gestures are nowadays pretty streamlined — an elegant twist of a hand here, an astute point of a finger there — but his vigour is intact and his musicianship is as poised and genial as ever. Blomstedt is a gentleman conductor and his rapport with the Leipzig players was palpable.
In the Bach the effect was light and shapely ensemble playing. In Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony the effect was a lucid and gracious performance — monumental structures built up of refined strata. It was the most gentle and reassuring symphonic Bruckner I’ve heard, those epic long-haul phrases drawn with noble unflappability. Nothing was hysterical or overstated; everything unfolded calmly and rationally with a contented sense of inevitability. The strings glowed, the pizzicato bass lines were graceful, the brass sounded warm and splendid. When the last movement came to its simple close there was a feeling of completeness that didn’t need any bombast to drive home the point.