La Scala, Milan, June 22, 2018—Herbert Blomstedt, who turns 91 in July, has been guest conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony these past months with various orchestras. On Friday evening he led the first of three performances with the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra. The orchestra’s busy opera schedule apparently did not allow for more than minimum rehearsal time, and given that Mahler is not their daily bread, so to speak, they played quite well, and often beyond that. Blomstedt adopted generally brisk tempos for the long opening movement, keeping the contrapuntal traffic moving and largely downplaying the little rhetorical asides,, expressive tenutos, and sudden dynamic inflections for which Mahler asks. On the other hand, Blomstedt gauged the large climaxes with both care and abandon. A few rough edges–like less than adroit melodic dovetailing between first-chair soloists and shaky muted trumpet chording–didn’t matter.
It took a while for the second movement’s landler theme to rhythmically coalesce, while the ferocity and sardonic character of the waltz episodes were underplayed. Yet Mahler’s felicitous, chamber-like scoring gained nimble nuance as the performance progressed. The same can be said of the Rondo-Burlesque, which began in a slightly foursquare fashion yet loosened up once the harp glissandos kicked in. The principal clarinetist particularly reveled in his pointed high-register rejoinders, while moments of lyrical respite elicited colorful ensemble blending that compensated for the somewhat held back coda.
However, everything came together in the Finale, where the ensemble blend projected with more assurance and sense of common purpose than before. This especially held true for the extraordinary concentration and sustaining power in the music’s devastatingly fragile final pages. After the last notes trailed off into the spheres, Blomstedt stood motionless for at least half a minute before gently indicating that the movement had concluded. He acknowledged the soloists and orchestral sections before taking any big bow for himself, and the musicians fervently applauded Blomstedt back.