United StatesJohn Williams, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Lang Lang (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 28.9.2014 (BJ)
John Williams: Essay for Strings
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453
Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie
From my own personal point of view, there was a great deal riding on this concert. My wife and I moved back to Philadelphia from the West Coast in May, and aside from one Metropolitan Opera HD transmission, in which he appeared to be doing excellent work, I had yet to encounter Yannick Nézet-Séguin at work—so what I might have to look forward to in the way of orchestral performance was an open question.
The performance of Richard Strauss’s gorgeously sprawling and gorgeously beautiful Alpine Symphony that concluded this first Philadelphia Orchestra program of the season answered that question in the most salubriously positive way. The man clearly knows what he is doing. Wolfgang Sawallisch, who succeeded Riccardo Muti as music director in the 1990s, was widely celebrated as a Strauss conductor, and he certainly achieved some of his best result in that composer’s music—but too often, I felt, there was a sense even in his Strauss performances, not exactly of excessively rapid tempos, but of a certain want of amplitude in the phrasing and pacing of the music. And of such a lack there was no trace in his young Canadian successor’s magisterially paced and ravishingly toned traversal of one of the composer’s most undisciplined yet most ravishing scores.
Both here and in the evening’s concerto, orchestral execution was nigh on immaculate, with richly saturated string tone and finely shaped work from the other sections of the orchestra, while associate principal oboist Peter Smith played so beautifully as to reconcile me to the incomparable Richard Woodhams’s evening off.
What, though, of the concerto? I had hoped—for hope springs eternal—that the challenge of facing one of Mozart’s dozen or so greatest piano concertos, K. 453 in G major, instead of another of the big warhorse pieces that he demolishes with such ruthless aplomb, might restore in Lang Lang some of the dazzling artistry that he demonstrated when I first heard him a dozen years ago, and from which all my subsequent encounters with him have represented a sad and continuous falling-off.
But such, sadly, was not to be the case. Instead of the inappropriate outward-looking rhetoric with which I heard him, in a recent Seattle encore, turn Schumann’s Träumerei–a piece that surely demands the most extreme intimacy of expression–into a sort of ranting political speech, his approach to the concerto was ruined by an equally inappropriate inwardness: he seemed incapable of playing even Mozart’s simplest inspirations without subjecting them to self-indulgent dynamic ebbs and flows of a self-indulgent totally un-classical character. “Tragic” is a grossly overused word. But there is something approaching the tragic in this potentially supreme artist’s inability to let his strengths speak for themselves.
The program had opened witha suavely shaped performance of the Essay for Strings by John Williams, a pleasant enough piece by a composer the celebrity of whose movie scores should not be allowed to obscure his far from negligible skill in the concert field. It was the third of three pieces, one per evening, that had been voted onto the stage by the orchestra’s public, a not unattractive populist idea to kick off Nézet-Séguin’s third season in the music director’s hot seat. In my initial judgment, it is a position he richly deserves to occupy.
PS—I cannot close without recommending to Strauss enthusiasts the 2012 recording of the Alpine Symphony by the São Paul State Symphony Orchestra of Brazil under the direction of the British conductor Frank Shipway, who died recently in a car accident. Sumptuously record by the BIS label’s engineers in SACD format, it is a perfectly enthralling account of the work, with orchestral sound that is just about the most stunningly beautiful I have ever heard, whether in recordings or in the concert hall.