Germany Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2015 – Nico Muhly, Grieg & Tchaikovsky: Jan Lisiecki (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin, (conductor), Semperoper, Dresden, 24.5.2015. (MC)
Nico Muhly: ‘Mixed Messages’
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Classed as one of America’s ‘Big Five’ orchestras my first exposure to the Philadelphia Orchestra was through recordings conducted by Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Muti. Whatever the off-stage financial problems may have been, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, its music director since 2012 ,on the evidence of this Semperoper, Dresden concert the Philadelphia Orchestra couldn’t be in finer hands.
It’s hard to explain what makes a concert special. It’s not just the proficiency of the performers, a talented conductor, the quality of the music, suitability of the venue and the receptivity of the audience, in addition there is an unquantifiable factor. Whatever the constituents of a special concert, this one under Nézet-Séguin was certainly a great one.
Opening the concert was ‘Mixed Messages’ written by Nico Muhly, the New York City based American composer and arranger, – a commission by the Philadelphia Orchestra that was only premièred just over a week ago in Philadelphia. It’s a vibrantly bold work of predominantly driving rhythmic momentum and moods rather than melody. It could easily be a musical picture of bustling city life and I was reminded of the unrelenting forward propulsion of John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine and the invention of Edgard Varèse’s Amériques. In the final pages as the tension built a series of swooping sounds heard on the strings was followed by an increase in weight and tempi leading to an almighty concluding climax.
Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki who I first saw play at the BBC Proms, London in 2013 brought the house down with an astounding performance that breathed new life into an old warhorse of the repertoire the Grieg Piano Concerto. Reminding me of the young Martha Argerich, Lisiecki’s interpretative facility is way beyond his years taking the Grieg Concerto to elevated heights of performance excellence that only the finest musicians achieve. Highly assured in such an unassuming way Lisiecki made everything look so easy. Such is his instinctive aptitude for tempo and dynamics, phrasing and articulation it felt as if he was the natural conduit for the music, including conveying a deep sense of introspection in the Adagio. The Semperoper audience responded with an eruption of applause and cheering with many leaping to their feet. Deserving such acclaim Lisiecki’s gripping performance was one of the finest that I have attended of any concerto in the concert hall. An encore of the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. Posth served as a much needed calming balm before the audience departed for the interval.
Next the Philadelphia Orchestra treated the Dresden audience to a fizzing reading of impressive sweep and vitality of another warhorse of the repertoire Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Yannick Nézet-Séguin was in his element with this marvellous score and how well his Philadelphia players responded with a performance of profound intensity held at the highest level. Tchaikovsky was suffering from a deep depression when he commenced his Fifth Symphony so it is no surprise that the score opens in a grave mood with the sensitive Nézet-Séguin conveying a compelling emotional response with the ‘fate’ motif. Assuredly Nézet-Séguin brings out the drama with the anxiety verging on despair adeptly maintained combined with thunderous orchestral climaxes. In the second movement Andante sadness and stark beauty are combined to significant effect and at the end of the movement you could have heard a pin drop. Instead of the usual Scherzo Tchaikovsky’s captivating waltz, which could have come straight out of a ballet, produced vibrant and spirited playing. Maintaining resolute control Nézet-Séguin squeezed every ounce of passion from the score boldly building full-blooded climaxes and highlighting the exalted nature of the final bars, which sent a shiver down the spine. The audience were on their feet once more bringing Nézet-Séguin back to the podium again and again but following such an emotionally draining symphony an encore didn’t seem appropriate.