When Herbert Blomstedt was chosen to succeed Edo de Waart as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, there was some concern that this low-profile conductor might not be what the orchestra needed. In his four years with the orchestra, however, he has built on the musical proficiency that de Waart (and before him Seiji Ozawa) had instilled in the orchestra, and has proved that he is exactly what the San Francisco Symphony needed.
The orchestra plays Carnegie Hall twice this weekend as part of a United States tour. And now we have the first two releases from a new London Records contract that promises to be a major asset to that company's list of North American orchestras.
The two releases are devoted to Hindemith and Nielsen. Blomstedt's recordings of the complete Nielsen symphonies with the Swedish Radio Orchestra were once available here on EMI/Angel's Seraphim label; his Hindemith is new to the catalogs.
What is instantly assessable from either release is the quality of the orchestra and the refinement of Blomstedt's ear. The music of both composers is played with passion and tonal finesse, and Blomstedt lets us hear all the instrumentation, so alert are his balances and so well have they been recorded here.
The Hindemith disc includes the warhorse Symphony ``Mathis der Mahler'' as well as ``Trauermusik'' (``Funeral Music'') and the ``Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber'' (London, digital, 1 CD, 421 523-2, 57 min.). Each performance is commendable, but none is entirely transcendent. One expects a certain otherworldly magic to the ``Mathis'' music which Blomstedt doesn't quite deliver. It's not that he doesn't understand Hindemith's ``sound,'' but rather he seems reluctant to spin or hold a phrase long enough to give it a sense of ecstasy and fervor. The ``Symphonic Metamorphosis'' lacks a bit of the needed wit, and the savage quality of the final ``March'' is underplayed.
The Nielsen disc (London digital, 1 CD, 421 524-2, 72 min.), which contains the Fourth (``Inextinguishable'') and Fifth Symphonies, is an altogether different affair. In fact, it whets the appetite for a complete cycle, so engrossing, interesting, and visionary are these performances. At a time when at least three other conductors are embarking on Nielsen cycles, for various recording companies, Blomstedt finds a way to be competitive.
Where most conductors convey a savage intensity, Blomstedt projects passion. The finale of the Fourth, for instance, has rarely cried out with the ache Blomstedt gives it. The drama with the timpani in the Fifth is gripping. This music fires Blomstedt the way the Hindemith does not, and offers proof that the San Francisco Symphony is becoming a first-rate ensemble.