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CD Review

Herbert Blomstedt

The San Francisco Years

  • Béla Bartók:
  • Symphonic Poem "Kossuth", Sz.21
  • Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116 (BB 123)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven:
  • Symphony #1 in C Major, Op. 21
  • Symphony #3 in E Flat Major "Eroica", Op. 55
  • Franz Berwald:
  • Symphony #1 in G minor "Sinfonie sérieuse"
  • Symphony #4 in E Flat Major "Sinfonie naïve"
  • Johannes Brahms:
  • Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 1,2
  • Schicksalslied, Op. 54 2
  • Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 2,3
  • Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13 2
  • Nänie, Op. 82 2
  • Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), Op. 89 2
  • Paul Hindemith:
  • Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
  • Trauermusik for Viola & Strings 5
  • Symphony "Mathis de Maler"
  • Concert Music for Strings & Brass
  • Felix Mendelssohn:
  • Symphony #3 in A minor "Scottish", Op. 56
  • Symphony #4 in A Major, Op. 90 "Italian"
  • Carl Nielsen:
  • Symphony #2 "The Four temperaments", Op. 16 (FS29)
  • Symphony #3 "Sinfonia espansiva", Op. 27 (FS60)
  • Franz Schubert:
  • Overture in C Major "in the Italian style", D 591
  • Symphony #9 in C Major "The Great", D 944
  • Jean Sibelius:
  • Symphony #1 in E minor, Op. 39
  • Symphony #7 in C Major, Op. 105
  • Tapiola, Op. 112
  • Richard Strauss:
  • Don Juan, Op. 20
  • Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64
  • Anton Bruckner: Symphony #4 in E Flat Major "Romantic"
  • Edvard Grieg: Incidental Music "Peer Gynt", Op. 23 2,4
  • Gustav Mahler: Symphony #2 in C minor "Resurrection" 2,6
  • Carl Orff: Carmina Burana 2,7
1 Elizabeth Norberg-Schultz, soprano
1 Wolgang Holzmair, baritone
3 Jard van Nes, contralto
4 Urban Malmberg (Peer Gynt)
4 MariAnne Häggander (Solveig)
5 Geraldine Walther, viola
6 Ruth Ziesak, soprano
6 Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo-soprano
7 Lynne Dawson, soprano
7 John Daniecki, tenor
7 Kevin McMillan, baritone
7 San Francisco Boys' & Girls' Chorus
2 San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt
Decca Classics 4786787 15CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC

There is absolutely nothing in this box that isn't worth owning forever, but there are some legitimate problems with the selections. The first of these is that this box does not contain some of Blomstedt's most important recordings in San Francisco. Granted, much of his Strauss and Sibelius has been recently available in other sets, but much of his other output has not. Why give the consumer the whole San Francisco/Blomstedt legacy? Why give us the disc with Don Juan yet again, when you can get it in both The Decca Sound and the very generous Tone Poems and Concertos boxes, also on Decca? Why not give us the disc with Till Eulenspiegel's lustige Streiche, which can be found in neither aforementioned set, and would give us – at the very least – a chance to have all of Blomstedt's American Strauss recordings in print? It's a shame we have to ask all these questions, because what we do get is ideal. Certainly if you are tired of picking up used Musical Heritage Society titles, this will be a Godsend. Let's start at the beginning.

The Bartók disc is a great example of the conductor leaving his comfort zone, and the early tone poem is great to have, too. In the Concerto for Orchestra, the San Francisco players really show off. While the ensemble work is just as admirable in the Beethoven disc, I find the overall results inferior to his earlier Dresden recordings. And while Decca's sound is exemplary, I do miss the warmth and luminosity of those German recordings. On the other hand, the Berwald disc is the last thing you'd expect in a set like this, but it's a winner in every sense of the word. These two 19th-Century symphonies – practically worthless subtitles aside – are tuneful and elegant examples. In the wrong hands, they sound awful. Credit conductor and orchestra for lavishing such care on this music; the results are revelatory.

The same can be said for each of these fantastic readings of choral repertoire. The two discs of Brahms choral music are superior to say Robert Shaw, and while none of these minor pieces really live up to their lofty subtitles, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus is unmatched then or now. The German Requiem is one of the best available, and the same could be said for Orff's Carmina Burana. In this latter work, the solo singers could be better. Indeed, none of the Blomstedt San Francisco recordings have the very best soloists of the era. The Mahler is a one-shot for the conductor – like Riccardo Muti in the Mahler 1st – and it happens to rank among the very best. Again, the soloists are unusual. Mezzo Charlotte Hellekant is fine, but Ruth Ziesak sounds almost childlike in nature. It's an odd sound, to be sure, at least for me. For those of you wondering, she was not a child soprano; she would have been 31 when this was set down in 1994.

The remaining large-scale orchestral works are good to outstanding. In the "good" corner we have Blomstedt's fine, but not reference Bruckner 4th, along with the Mendelssohn disc. Some might rank the latter coupling higher; I have been spoiled by Munch and Bernstein. Everything else is unquestionably great. The Hindemith comes from the conductors acclaimed Decca series devoted to that composer, split between San Francisco and Leipzig. The Grieg – again featuring the Symphony's Chorus and assorted soloists – gives us the complete Peer Gynt. These forces also recorded the Suites from the same work; be aware those are two separate, but equally worthy discs. The Nielsen and Sibelius are best heard within the context of their outstanding complete sets, while the Strauss disc is redundant from a reissue standpoint. It remains a fine achievement, I simply didn't need it again. Still, nothing here is less than very good, and it all sounds wonderful from a sonic perspective. While Decca could have done this differently, I'm very happy to have this box. I suspect you will be, too.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman