London Philharmonic and Nézet-Séguin Pay Tribute to Sir Thomas Beecham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Weber, Mozart, Schubert: Aldo Ciccolini (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra,Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London. 12.10.2011 (GD)

Weber: Overture Oberon
Mozart: Piano Concerto in D minor No. 20, K 466
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C, D 944 (Great).

This concert was in memory of Sir Thomas Beecham who died fifty years ago. Beecham, of course, was the founder of the LPO back in the early thirties and he programmed many of Mozart’s works in London and elsewhere at a time when the composer was not performed as frequently as he is today. I am almost sure that Beecham programmed K 466 in many of his concerts, although tonight’s programme note on the Beecham anniversary and the works performed tonight does not specifically state that he performed this concerto. Of course he made a famous recording (at the time) of the Weber Overture with the LPO; and recently a rousing, if orchestrally untidy performance, with the Royal Philharmonic from 1955 of the ‘Great’ Schubert symphony, which he conducted frequently, has been unearthed and issued on CD.

From the magical opening of the Oberon Overture, with a beautifully intoned horn phrase, veiled string playing, perfect phrasing and meticulous dynamic grading from Nézet-Séguin, it was clear that this was going to be a distinctive concert. Nézet-Séguin did slow down for the lyrical second theme (associated with one of Huon’s arias from the opera), but he then made a convincing transition into the quasi development section and the lead back to the dramatic exuberance of the main allegro. Such mastery of rubato is surely a sign of the soundest musicianship and imaginative conducting.

The most impressive feature in Mozart’s great Piano Concerto in D minor tonight was the playing of the veteran Aldo Ciccolini. After hearing the first movement cadenza – the one by Beethoven – complemented by the Finale’s cadenza – also by Beethoven – with their astonishing array of chiroscuro tonal shifts, contrasts,and cascades of often quite remote harmonies, it was amazing to realise that this superb pianism issued from the fingers of an eighty-six year old man! But all through the concerto Ciccolini’s total musicality and eloquent technique (never technique as an end in itself, as we so often hear today) shone through. I was often reminded of the classic playing of past masters like Serkin, Kempf, Edwin Fischer and Annie Fischer. All the way through Nézet-Séguin proved himself a most empathetic accompanist, soloist and conductor in total accord. Ideally I would have preferred a smaller string section, with more prominent trumpets and timpani cutting through the textures, especially in the dark, dramatic D minor opening orchestral ‘ritornello’. Also why did Nézet-Séguin opt for non-antiphonal violins? But much of this was compensated for by superbly fashioned string phrasing, articulation, and beautifully blended concertante woodwind, especially in the B flat major second movement ‘Romanze’. The finale’s D minor, agitated Sturm und Drang moods, giving way to a wonderfully contrasted D major Opera Buffo coda, was managed with total mastery. Ciccolini never forgot Mozart’s Enlightenment dialectic where D minor drama is subtended by its opposite D major brilliance, humour, irony, and lightness of touch – all wonderfully there in tonight’s rendition.

From the theme for two horns in unision, which opens Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony, and the following modulations and contrasts of the ‘Andante’ introduction, it was apparent, as with the rest of the concert, that Nézet-Séguin had thoroughly rehearsed the LPO. Throughout this huge symphony, and despite a minor trombone fluff in the ‘Andante, I have rarely heard the LPO play with such consistent excellence. Importantly Nézet-Séguin managed the long lead transition into the main ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ with absolute conviction – a conviction derived to from a masterful sense of timing and balancing of dynamics and rhythmic contrast. And Nézet-Séguin, unlike many conductors present and past, crucially realises the seminal importance of precise rhythmic articulation here. I say ‘seminal’ because, as in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, motivic rhythmic figure units will come to pervade and condition the interlinking rhythmic contour of each of the symphony’s four contrasted, but related, movements. Like Sir Thomas Beecham (whose 1955 live recording is mentioned above) Nézet-Séguin moulded the G major lyrical second subject beautifully, with wonderfully song-like woodwind articulation. But, unlike Beecham, Nézet-Séguin held a sense of rhythmic power and energy in reserve for the movement’s coda, which develops thematically and tonally from the mid-movement G major fortissimo quasi ostinato climax with triumphant chordal interplay between the strings and the all important trombones. As is customary today, Nézet-Séguin restored Schubert’s original scoring for the movement’s coda, without the addition of blaring trumpets, thus achieving a better, more audible balance between woodwind and strings. The real power was rightly reserved for the final tutti statement of the work’s opening theme with trombones to the fore.

The second movement gained by being played, as instructed, as a true ‘Andante con moto’, Nézet-Séguin fully realising the ‘idomitable march-rhythm’ of this A minor invention. The tutti marcato sforzando interjections were well sprung, never sounding heavy and Teutonic as in the Furtwangler tradition, but always making their sharp impact felt. The great fff A minor climax (the chord of the diminished 7th) sounded more dramatically arresting by being played as written, with no diconcerting slowing down for effect. The transition to the following contrast of the beautiful A major cello theme thereby sounded totally natural and inevitable, with no need for an imposed ppp halo.

Nézet-Séguin brought out all the Scherzo’s ‘Allegro vivace’ sharp rhythmic contrasts and was able to convey a degree of relaxation for the contrasting Viennese sounding dance music. The A major trio was convincingly balanced with nicely moulded and bucolic contributions from woodwind and horns – fully confirming Tovey’s characterisation of this trio section as ‘a huge single melody – one of the greatest and most exhilarating melodies in the world’.

Nézet-Séguin imbued the great finale with a structural coherence by maintaining a more or less sustained pulse at a tempo which did not vary much from a well paced ‘Allegro’. But there was no sense mere mechanical motion. The contrast into the A major development section, with its transition into A minor with massive brass chords intoning the basic four-note figure pervading the symphony, unfolded with a firm rhythmic grasp never sounding contrived, or overlaid with added accented inflections. As in the first movement, Nézet-Séguin reserved added power and energy for the coda. I am not sure that he captured the ‘terrifying’, ‘grotesque’ power Tovey found in this finale. Neither did he quite equal the dramatic fire of a Toscanini, the stoic grandeur of a Klemperer, or the ‘echt’ Viennese lyricism of a Josef Krips. But I came away with a sense of hearing a totally convincing and ‘musical’ realisation of this great symphony. And today I don’t think we can ask for much more? I look forward to Nézet-Séguin recording this work. If he does, I hope he includes more repeats. Tonight we only heard the first repeat in the scherzo and trio. Also, as noted above, I hope he deploys antiphonal violins. But I will close this review with a more positive note. Nézet-Séguin did not hold on to the last blazing C major chord, as many conductors have done and continue to do -and if we look at the score we see that Schubert does not include a fermata. This is just a detail, but one which characterises Nézet-Séguin’s interpretive logic of playing what is there in the score.

Geoff Diggines