The Great Classics Are the Hardest to Get Right

United StatesUnited States Beethoven and Shostakovich: Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Kirill Gerstein (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 30.1.2015 (BJ)

Beethoven:                 Symphony No. 5
Shostakovich:            Piano Concerto No. 2
excerpts from Suite from The Gadfly (arr. Levon Atovmyan)


In the four months since I became a regular listener to Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s work, I have also become a keen admirer of this conductor. Until now, only one of the performances I have heard from him, a somewhat superficial account of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations a couple of months ago, has seemed to me to fall below a very high standard both of technical polish and of artistic perceptivity.

So far as the great Austro-German classics are concerned, moreover, his thrilling Brahms Third Symphony in December showed that he can draw a compellingly accurate and insightful bead on that testing are of the repertoire. But Beethoven’s seemingly straightforward Fifth Symphony is a work that many a conductor over the ages has gotten wrong, and I think it Nézet-Séguin got it wrong on this occasion.

Other challenges and subtleties aside, the Fifth Symphony presents two relatively simple cruces of interpretation, and the failure to solve them inevitably undermines the whole effect of the work. One is the pair of fermatas, or unmeasured pauses, that sustain notes in the famous opening theme at its multiple appearances; the other is the tempo relation between the last two movements–the darkly dramatic scherzo, not so titled by Beethoven, and the grandly triumphant finale.

Many years ago, the widely admired Bruno Walter made a recording of the work that was prefaced by part of the rehearsal in which he prepared his performance. In the rehearsal, he tells the orchestra how he wants the first fermata played, and then instructs the players that the second fermata should be “exactly the same” as the first. The most cursory glance at the score is surely enough to show that this is a simple misstatement, because the measure surmounted by the second one is preceded, unlike the first, and at every repetition of the theme, by an additional half-note measure, clearly showing that Beethoven wanted the second pause to be longer than the first. (In Walter’s actual performance, to make matters worse, he allows it to be sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, and in one place, indeed, exactly the same.) Then there was Erich Leinsdorf, who in his book The Composer’s Advocate proposed a way of interrelating the two fermatas that contradicted the whole idea of an unmeasured pause and reduced the essential flexibility of the theme to mere mathematical equivalences.

 It is fascinating to go back over the Philadelphia Orchestra’s encounters with this crux over the past few decades. I cannot speak of any performances of the work that Dutoit or Eschenbach may have given with the orchestra, because I didn’t hear them. But Wolfgang Sawallisch’s treatment of the movement in question, and his audience’s reception of it, suffices to demonstrate that people in general hear what they expect to hear. Since he had a German name, and looked and dressed like your man-in-the-street bank manager, Sawallisch was regarded by many Philadelphia concert-goers as the epitome of classical integrity–I actually heard some of them praising his performance for its supposed classical correctness. Yet that was a performance of, to my ears, the utmost vulgarity. It was inconsistent about the relative lengths of those pauses–and every time the theme reappeared, the conductor applied a gradually increasing pressure on the brakes that, by the time we reached the later stages of the movement, resulted in an utterly unstylish standstill.

 The performance now under review committed no such grossness. But Nézet-Séguin went to an opposite extreme that was almost as destructive of the music’s effect: his projection of the main theme dashed so rapidly through both fermatas that there was no time even to judge which was longer. (A few moments later, incidentally, the horn notes that effect the transition to the second subject were played with hardly a trace of the sforzando accents the composer asks for.)

 But it is the second crux, the tempo relation between the last two movements, that is perhaps of greater significance. Beethoven labeled this score, like many of his others, with metronome marks that give a mathematical indication of the tempos he wanted. Now, his use of the metronome was admittedly somewhat inexpert, and in any case metronome marks are of minimal absolute authority, given all the circumstantial elements–size of hall, size of audience, and even climatic conditions–that affect a performance. But relative importance is a different matter, and when Beethoven marks his third movement to be played at a tempo of 96 dotted half-notes (ascribing the absence of the printed do to mere carelessness) to the minute and his finale at 84, it’s surely clear that the transition into the finale should be marked by a grand expansion of the beat.

It is, furthermore, in the opening measures of the finale that trombones and contrabassoon, as well as piccolo, make their dramatic first appearance in the symphonic literature, which intensifies the necessity for time to be allowed to let them speak. Yet one conductor after another has reversed this plainly necessary relation of fast-ish scherzo and more moderately paced finale, and Nézet-Séguin too reversed it, setting the finale on its course with the rapidity and zest of a racehorse dashing out of the starting-gate.

 And when we look farther back in history, before Sawallisch there was Riccardo Muti. Just as Sawallisch’s prosaic appearance served for some as evidence for his musical rectitude, so obviously Muti’s dashing good looks and Mediterranean passion had the less perceptive among observers convinced that he would be a romantic loose cannon when he tackled the great classics. And yet it was Muti who meticulously got right all the matters I have been discussing–the lengths of the fermatas, the majestic opening of the finale, and everything else.

Nézet-Séguin’s dash, damaging as it was at that juncture in the finale, was admirably suited to the evening’s concerto, which was Shostakovich’s No. 2 for piano. Kirill Gerstein despatched the solo part with a sensational combination of brilliance, delicacy when that was called for, and sheer power. The orchestra under Nézet-Séguin matched him note for polished note, and they played equally well in the fairly inconsequential selection of movements from the composer’s film score for The Gadfly that concluded the program.

 Nor should I omit to mention that there were many incidental beauties in the symphony, including a gracefully conducted and elegantly played slow movement, and spectacular work from the double basses and indeed all the strings in the third movement’s trio section.

 The orchestra’s wildly popular young music director has already shown himself to be a master of many disparate styles. He is not yet the master of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but I have little doubt that one day he will be.


Bernard Jacobson

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