Europe-Bound, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra Give a Stunning Preview

United StatesUnited States  Muhly, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff: Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 15.5.2015 (BJ)

Muhly: Mixed Messages
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3

I have never heard the Philadelphia Orchestra play better. I have never heard Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony or Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto played better.

The last time around for me with this Rachmaninoff symphony and this orchestra was nearly 20 years ago. Riccardo Chailly was the conductor, and I remember finding the work itself sorely lacking in musical sap—a shade tawdry, and even arid, which is not a word you can often apply to Rachmaninoff’s music. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s performance, in this last subscription program before he takes the symphony on his first European tour with the orchestra, compelled me to revise that unflattering judgment radically.

Chailly is a fine musician, but there was something curiously unengaged about his conducting of the work, which I compared unfavorably with the performance of the Second Symphony that I coincidentally heard that sadly missed maestro Yakov Kreizberg give in Wilmington on tour with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the same week. Kreizberg even drew more sumptuous string tone from his southern English ensemble than the Philadelphians of the day managed under Chailly’s baton.

In contrast that is still vivid after two intervening decades, Nézet-Séguin set the work alight. There was about his account, and consequently about the playing of the whole orchestra, an exultant freedom, a Schwung, a slancio—as you see, I cannot find a single word in any language to do full justice to the zest and the sheer communicative power of what happened in the hall on this memorable afternoon.

And the Third Symphony, in further consequence, seemed far more of a masterpiece than I have ever thought it before. It is, assuredly, a smaller masterpiece than No. 2, but if its textures and its harmonic and melodic language are less inexhaustibly rich and seductive than its predecessor’s, it is still prodigal of compelling orchestral effects. There are little strokes of genius, like the brilliant strategy the composer adopts to get the music from the central fast section of the middle movement back to the slow tempo of the flanking sections: what does the trick is a momentary speeding-up of figuration, which then makes the change of pulse entirely natural.

The case for me with Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is quite different. I have always loved the work, which I regard as standing with the concertos of Frank Martin and Carl Nielsen—and thus above several more frequently performed works by some greatly respected composers—as the outstanding 20th-century examples of the violin concerto genre. And over the years I have heard it played by some remarkable soloists, starting with its dedicatee, David Oistrakh.

Well, Lisa Batiashvili, born in Georgia (the country, not the state) 36 years ago, put even the great Oistrakh retrospectively in the shade. Never have I heard the concerto played with so consummate a mastery of its widely varied moods. From the introspective passion of the opening Nocturne, by way of the Scherzo’s skittishness (where Batiashvili missed not a single one of Shostakovich’s trademark cross-accents), the tragic grandeur of the Passacaglia—a form for which the composer shared his friend Benjamin Britten’s affection—and the gradual virtuoso intensification of the cadenza, to the helter-skelter onrush of the concluding Burlesque, this was violin-playing and music-making in the grand manner. Quite aside from her seemingly impeccable technique, there was a crispness about Batiashvili ‘s attack that bespoke her utter absorption in the music’s message, and she covered a range of dynamics from a whisper to an always mellow fortissimo that needed no quieting-down from the orchestra to make the solo part infallibly clear. And that orchestra supplied often thrilling support under Nézet-Séguin’s solicitous direction.

It was perhaps bad luck for the 33-year-old Nico Muhly that his exhilarating ten-minute Mixed Messages, a Philadelphia Orchestra commission that was being heard for the first time in the week’s concerts, should have been overshadowed by two such magnificent performances. Like the whole program, it was superbly played, and featured some tingling orchestral effects, including a series of upward “whoops” in the strings, that constituted genuinely original invention. But, as I found years ago in certain works by Elliott Carter, the character of the thematic material was not striking enough to carry the music’s intended mixing of messages lucidly to the ear. If a theme does not impose itself immediately on the listener’s mind, its returns are not likely to make for convincing contrast with a work’s other elements.

Nevertheless, as one of the two programs being taken to Europe (the other features Emanuel Ax in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, together with the Brahms Third Symphony and a suite from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier), this concert provided the most positive possible augury for the success of the expedition.

Bernard Jacobson

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