PROM (53):Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic in an Uneven Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 53, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Prokofiev, Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London 22.8.2013. (JPr)

Prom 53 (c) BBC Chris Christodoulou
Prom 53 (c) BBC Chris Christodoulou

Tchaikovsky: Fantasy-Overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major

The Canadian conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, brought the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra – of which he is music director – for a concert of two Russian works either side of a performance of Wagner’s only song-cycle for his bicentenary Proms season.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Fantasy-Overture was first suggested to him by Mily Balakirev, a friend and mentor, and he outlined to him how it should be composed. Tchaikovsky’s first 1869 version virtually followed Balakirev’s suggestions to the letter but with its second revision 10 years later it became the version that has become a ‘warhorse’ of the concert repertoire. The most significant alteration was probably changing the original dark evocation of Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence to the more calming chorale-like opening theme for clarinets and bassoons. Then, with the arrival of the second theme depicting the feuding Montagues and Capulets followed by the celebrated love theme – that has been a staple of TV and film music – everything became very cosily familiar. Nézet-Séquin coaxed some vivid colours from his orchestra in a perspicuous performance but it lacked something in dramatic impact for me: there is a story being told here and it is not just a simple romantic score.

Next were the small and perfectly formed masterpieces from Richard Wagner, his Wesendonck-Lieder song cycle. It was composed in 1857 and 1858 when he was ‘involved’ with Mathilde Wesendonck in what may only have been an affair of the mind but at least it caused him to set to music five of her poems. Barry Millington began his programme note entertainingly by commenting: ‘Had Wagner’s relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck been conducted in our own age, we would doubtless know a great deal more about it. Mathilde would have sold her torrid story for an undisclosed sum to a tabloid newspaper, her husband Otto would have used the same medium to call for Wagner to be horsewhipped, and phalanxes of TV pundits and pop-psychologists would have been marshalled to pore over the sordid details. When and why, had Wagner’s own marriage to Minna begun to deteriorate? Did Mathilde lead him on? Most intriguing of all: did they actually do it?’ The truth is that Wagner was ‘sponging off’ the Wesendonck’s generosity in possibly more ways than one: at the time he was working on Tristan und Isolde andthe Prelude to Act III and the Act II duet are heard in the songs, Im Treibhaus and Träume. Wagner wrote the music for piano accompaniment but they were later orchestrated by his friend Felix Mottl.

To be honest, all this history about the songs is more interesting than the performance they received as sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci and this must have been one of the least distinguished in their history at the Proms. I wonder whether the singer was under-the-weather as there were short, chopped-up phrases and her voice was a little steely where it needed to be voluptuous. Her account remained firmly earthbound and never soared to match the Schopenhauerian metaphysics of the texts. Ms Antonacci is an experienced recitalist and not unfamiliar with these songs: I wondered why she felt the need to have the music on a stand in front of her and even though it was there she did not seem entirely faultless. However, the accompaniment from Nézet-Séquin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic was lucid, responsive and empathetic and they were at their best with Stehe still! with its driving rhythms and tenderly rapturous ending – if only his soloist had sung it as well as it was played.

David Nice, the great expert on Prokofiev, repeated in his programme note how this symphony is believed by many to encompass ‘the grandeur of the human spirit’ as the composer described it himself. I am new to Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony but reading the background information it is clearly a work that is open to different interpretations because it was composed in 1944 with Prokofiev safe in Russia but still harbouring – according to Nice – ‘intense concern for the progress of the Second World War and the determination of the Russian People.’ Rehashing other unused music (from his ballet Romeo and Juliet in the scherzo and some film music from The Queen of Spades in the Adagio) its frequent percussion-driven eruptions seems to be depicting, if anything, that ‘grandeur of the human spirit’ against the machinations of the warring state juggernaut.

I was left wanting a little more than Nézet-Séquin and his orchestra (led by the wonderful Marieke Blankestijn) gave us. I suspect the loud first movement could be more portentous and the mischievous scherzo might have more depths of irony or sarcasm. I wondered if the slow movement should have been a little less nostalgic and – like the end of the last movement – have more malevolence and been even more chilling as a result. Nézet-Séquin clearly has a wonderful rapport with his musicians and conducted with energy and enthusiasm throughout the evening and this worked against some of the music – such as this Prokofiev symphony. Despite great clarity of detail, yet again there seemed to be many undercurrents to this ambiguous, but intriguing, masterpiece that the conductor got nowhere near exploring in full. This Fifth Symphony never caught fire for me in the way that it might if conducted by someone else – so I look forward to hearing it again.

Nézet-Séquin’s irrepressible high spirits on the podium were at their best in the encore of the Folk Festival from Prokofiev’s younger compatriot, Shostakovich: this short piece has strong Spanish influences and fizzed joyfully along.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the 2013 BBC Proms visit .