The Philadelphia Orchestra Makes Amends to Brahms

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Haydn, and Strauss: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 6.12.2014 (BJ)

Brahms: Symphony No. 3
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C major
Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier

One of the two greatest performances of Brahms’s Third Symphony in my experience was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti’s direction in the 1980s. It challenged—and sustained—comparison with one, thirty years earlier again, given by another Italian whose name crops up too rarely when “the great conductors” are discussed: Victor de Sabata. So perhaps the thirty-year gap was just the right length of time to prepare for another superb interpretation of the work, and that was what Yannick Nézet-Séguin duly delivered at this concert, blessedly erasing memories of the mediocre account of the composer’s Fourth Symphony led by a guest conductor two weeks earlier.

Nézet-Séguin approached the symphony, as it were, from the opposite angle to Muti’s. His predecessor’s performance was all consuming rhythmic impulse and heroic grandeur. This time, though those qualities took their appropriate place in Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation, the fundamental expressive tone was grounded in the more intimate aspects of the score, which, in a highly perceptive note in the program book, he touchingly referred to as “the secret garden of Brahms.”

Both approaches can work. On this occasion, the music director had me in the palm of his hand from the very start, thanks to his masterly solution of the first theme’s rhythmic challenge. The whole question of clarifying the rhythm of a symphonic opening is fascinating. Elgar prefaced the march-like motto theme of his First Symphony with two little drum rolls that, though seemingly insignificant, set up the music’s 4/4 meter, so that the subtle phrasing of the theme itself cannot confuse listeners into thinking they are hearing a melody in 3/2 time. Mahler, in his Ninth Symphony, took a precisely opposite course, starting with several rhythmically ambiguous measures so that the regularly phrased beginning of the main theme, when it appears in the second violins, has the effect of a warming and consolatory homecoming.

Brahms’s main theme is in 6/4 time (with two compound beats to the measure), but it is phrased in such a way that, without considerable care on the conductor’s part, too much emphasis on the weak note in each beat can make it sound like a 3/2 meter of three simple beats. Even as great a conductor as Bernard Haitink has on occasion fallen into this trap, as you can hear if you listen to at least one of his recordings of the work. Nézet-Séguin, by contrast, phrased them as perfectly as anyone I have heard, and this proved to be only the beginning of an account of impeccable musicality and balanced power.

The climaxes were genuinely cathartic, serving to release the tension in the build-up passages that preceded them (though I did feel that perhaps the first movement’s last big fortissimo would have proved more truly climactic if earlier ones had been held back just a little). Aside from the deep quietness the conductor conjured in many passages, he handled silences, too, with a wonderful sense of rhetoric, while his pacing of all four movements as a virtually seamless whole, with only momentary pauses between them so that there was none of the usual clearing of audience throats to distract attention, greatly enhanced the sense of the work’s unity.

The orchestra responded with characteristically rich tone—the strings hardly seemed like the same group that had sounded papery and insubstantial two weeks before—and principal horn Jennifer Montone demonstrated exactly why she is so widely admired, shaping her important solos with an ideal blend of confidence and poetic grace.

In Haydn’s C-major Cello Concerto after intermission, Jean-Guihen Queyras (now making his Philadelphia Orchestra debut with the same work he had played with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia six years earlier) achieved a miracle of deft articulation and often witty phrasing. Lithe in rhythm and light rather than sumptuous in tone, his playing was that of a man fully cognizant of Historically Informed Performance practice, joining happily in the tuttis in both the outer movements, and throwing embellishments off with dazzling aplomb. Rather as Rostropovich used to do, he made the solo part sound like a dramatis persona in a compelling theatrical narrative.

Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra matched that feeling with splendidly alert and pointed playing. And the Rosenkavalier suite that concluded this uncommonly enjoyable evening was a model of similarly operatic panache and humor.


Bernard Jacobson