If you are in the mood to learn something about classical music then listen to Herbert Blomstedt; better yet, hear him conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker in the Digital Concert Hall.
Blomstedt has always had a signature directness in his musicality, and though he has worked with almost every major orchestra it was refreshing to hear him once again in Berlin, where musicians excel at making connections not only within individual works but among all the works featured in a program.
At first glance the pairing of Beethoven's fourth symphony with the Nielsen fifth caught attention. Programs consisting of two large-scale symphonies are somewhat rare. They are islands within a sea of over-used overture-concerto-symphony designs.
Blomstedt spoke fluently about connections between the two symphonies during an informative and entertaining interval talk. He shared with Simon Rattle and only a few others the distinction of speaking alone, without an interviewer on camera, during the entire segment. One had the impression he could have held forth for hours...just push the "go" button on that wonderful technology. He held our attention.
He spoke of the way that minor thirds structured ideas in both works, and how they both began obliquely from a tonal point of view. The famous snare drum ostinato in the opening movement of the Nielsen he framed as a symbol of "evil." It could represent a monumental struggle but it could also be understood as something "very personal:" a cancer, or even a "bad habit you indulge in." The music reveals the deep joy of overcoming.
There were other connections. Clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer made time seem to stop during the second theme group of the Adagio in Beethoven IV. His sense of phrase extended beyond the rests and that line became the center of the entire work. Later in the movement, the same line returned in Eb major, and the brightening of color was vivid. When Ottensamer played the clarinet solo that closed the first movement of the Nielsen, a new connection between Beethoven and Nielsen was forged for us. Both passages are prayers.
Another place of connection was the rhythmic ostinato that opened the second movement of Beethoven IV; a switch that outlined a perfect fourth in lightening brief silences. The ghostly first fugue subject in the second movement of the Nielsen spoke the same language.
The sound of the orchestra burned during the most fierce moments of the Nielsen. After the blazing Eb major close of the work Blomstedt gave the orchestra a fist pump! It sealed an engaging and powerful performance.