The Blomstedt Years, Part 2

This is the third in a series of articles on the San Francisco Symphony's discographic history. The first installment covered Pierre Monteux's RCA Victor records with the orchestra, from the 1940s through the early 1950s.

In the second installment I related the backstory of Herbert Blomstedt's many Decca recordings: How They Were Born, How They Were Most Despicably Murder'd, and How They Walk Amongst Us Again.

Now let's browse the Blomstedt/SFS catalog. But if I may, first a slight digression...


Here at S.F. Classical Music Examiner headquarters, the Prime Directive is "no reviews." My personal prohibition against any form of concert reviewing stems not from disdain, but rather professional ethics.

I'm very much a practicing, working musician with deep roots here in the Bay Area. I've taught at the San Francisco Conservatory — a primary ganglion of the area's musical nervous system — for over thirty years. Just imagine just how many friends, colleagues, and students (former and current) I have in Northern California cultural institutions. Or worldwide, for that matter. We musicians get around.

I really can't so much as open my mouth with critical intent without running smack dab into conflict-of-interest issues.

To take an extreme case, were I to attend a San Francisco Symphony concert then post a review of same in this column, I would be guilty of an inexcusable breach of professional propriety. I am, after all, employed regularly by the Symphony as a program annotator and "Inside Music" lecturer.

Sometimes ethical distinctions really are simple black 'n' white affairs, but the boundaries blur when dealing with evangelism/promotion, which is my (unstated but I hope obvious) purpose for S.F. Classical Musical Examiner. I'm bound to be connected to just about anything in Bay Area music that I mention in an article; that's the inevitable result of playing an active part in a locality's music scene for over three decades.

Which means that were I to limit my coverage to only the connection-free, I would have to restrict my posts to regurgitated Grove's articles about 19th century English church organists.

The point is: I'm bound to emit a whiff of critical musk in the course of these present essays, unless I stoop to a bland listing of "first they recorded this, and then that, and then they won a Grammy for that..." How dull. I'd rather explain why the Blomstedt/SFS recordings are so spiffy, and why I'm so thrilled that they're back — and I daresay that's what you'd rather read, too. I can't do that without talking turkey at least a little bit.

Or perhaps you'd like to hear about Nigel Llewellyn-Monroe (1794–1857), whose long career as music director and organist at St. Stephens in Midvale-on-Tyre-in-the-Fields was noted for his scrupulous observation of Anglican liturgy...


The Decca engineers who came to San Francisco in the late 1980s through the mid 1990s were charged with recording a crackerjack ensemble, median age youngish as top-tier orchestras go but well-seasoned nonetheless, playing in a rosy-warm concert hall, skippered by a quietly brilliant conductor of impeccable taste and musicianship.

Only absolute dolts could have screwed that up, but Decca didn't hire dolts. Those engineers were masters who lavished their artistry on Blomstedt and the SFS. Just the acoustic quality alone is reason enough to pick up some of these CDs; you will not hear better.

The folks over at CD-review site ClassicsToday can be pretty tough cookies when it comes to substandard audio, but a search through the nine Blomstedt/SFS reviews reveals unanimity of opinion about the sonics; they all love it (them?). Phrases such as "top drawer sonics", "beautifully detailed sound", "wonderful warm and true Decca sound" are the norm, without any dissenting voices.

The Blomstedt discography leans heavily towards 19th and early 20th century fare (nothing earlier than Beethoven), with some very interesting exceptions, among which is an album of works by Roger Sessions and John Harbison; the pieces themselves are a bit on the grim side — that tiresome mid-century American mosh of spat-out dissonance and herky-jerky rhythm — but are given exemplary performances. The single Bartók offering, a combo of the early symphonic poem "Kossuth" and the much-recorded Concerto for Orchestra, is a standout, and a must for anybody who collects Bartók CfOs.

A lavish Carmina Burana (Carl Orff, and don't get me started on his Nazi connections) adds glamor to the contemporary portion of the repertoire; once again, even in a crowded field of renditions (including Jochum's, supervised by Carl Orff Himself), Blomstedt & Co. shine forth. (The Penguin Guide doesn't mince words: "Blomstedt's is the finest modern version of Orff's exhilaratingly hedonistic cantata.")

The 3-disc HIndemith set (two of which are with the SFS) belongs on your short list if you have even so much as a marginal interest in this neglected German master, or in the SFS. Or even if you don't. (Penguin Guide: "Blomstedt's Hindemith triptych may help to defuse the idea that this is a grittily uningratiating composer.")

I'm personally more interested in the catalog's 19th century repertoire, partly because I'm convinced that this literature demands the most of a conductor and orchestra's mettle, and also due to this repertoire's deep recorded history. How many Schubert Unfinisheds have been recorded? Beethoven Eroicas? Mendelssohn Italian and Scottish symphonies? Even moving a bit off to the edges of the standard repertory, how many Sibelius symphony sets are there, how many Richard Strauss tone poems?

Was there any point in Blomstedt/SFS tossing another Eroica into the ring? Well, yes there was...because Blomstedt offered an insightful, organically-whole conception of the work, the orchestra played the living daylights out of it, and Decca recorded it to a T. (Those are precisely the same reasons why Osmo Vanska's current Beethoven cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra is such a success.)

There's no reason to avoid any of these CDs just because you might happen to have another rendition, even a classic one, in your current collection. There are some magnificent Heldenlebens out there, such as Reiner's on RCA. But Blomstedt and the SFS give them all a run for their money, and then some. The Symphony's Alpine Symphony (Strauss) is the finest rendition on disc that I know (although I don't pretend to know all of them.)

Several more multi-disc cycles join the superb Hindemith set. The Sibelius symphonies have received a lot of loving attention from conductors as diverse as Karajan, Jarvi, Segerstam, Vanska, Rattle, and Ashkenazy. Blomstedt's cycle may well offer the most consistent level of playing of the bunch, and even the immaculately-engineered Segerstam/Helsinki cycle can't quite match up to Decca's opulent sonics.

Blomstedt, a Scandinavian, is a strong exponent of Nielsen, Grieg, Sibelius, and other Nordic composers (Berwald, for example.) The complete Peer Gynt is a not-to-be-missed treat, and as for Nielsen...well...Herbert Blomstedt more or less owns this composer.

As I've mentioned in an earlier post, most of the Blomstedt/SFS recordings are available only from ArkivMusic, as ArkivCD reprints, although some do still remain in print from their original sources. From what I can tell, only one CD (Schubert Symphony No. 9) has fallen through the cracks — i.e., neither in print nor an ArkivCD — but used copies can be found on Amazon or other such sources.

So here are some list 'n' links that you might find helpful:

Grammys and other awards:

  • Grammy: 1996 for Bartok Kossuth/Concerto for Orchestra (Best Engineered Album, Classical)
  • Grammy: 1996 for German Requiem (Best Choral Performance)
  • Grammy: 1991 Carmina Burana (Best Choral Recording)
  • Gramophone: 1998 for Neilsen Symphonies 2 & 3
  • Cannes Classical Award: 1992 for Berwald Symphonies 1 & 2
  • Record Academy Award of Japan: Grieg Peer Gynt 1990.
  • Grammy Nominee, German Record Award Critics winner: Mahler Symphony No. 2
  • Grand Prix du Disque and Caecilia Award: Neilsen Symphony No. 4

Coming up: the de Waart years, after that a post on Ozawa, Jorda, and Krips, and then on to today's lavish fest of MTT productions.