Philadelphia Orchestra Benefits from Nézet-Séguin’s Scrupulous Conducting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Muhly, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London. 6.6.2015 (GD)

Nico Muhly: Mixed Messages (UK premiere)
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op, 77
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44


This was the first of two concerts by Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra given in London as their last port of call after a European tour which has included such major European cultural centres as Paris, Vienna, Lyon, Berlin and Amsterdam. It is notable that the tour only includes one piece of music by a living composer, Nico Muhly,  who was very much alive and in the audience tonight. We have had lots of Rachmaninov at the Festival Hall over the last few years; I would argue too much. Surely the inclusion of works by major living composers like: the Austrian Olga Neuwirth, the Hungarian Peter Eötvös  or the fascinatingly diverse French composer Pascal Dusapin, to name just a few, would have made the concerts somehow more relevant? And I am not talking about just one tokenistic ‘living’ work, but concerts which include several living composers – or all living composers!  The continued inclusion of overplayed dead composers gives the concert ‘event’ the semblance of a rather fustian museum culture! But I suppose concert promoters have to  give prime importance to box office returns. And with the prevailing turn to a familiar  cultural conservatism in the West dead composers will continue to rule the day in  concert programming.

Nico Muhly’s Mixed Messages (2015) in its admirable economy (around 11 minutes) manages to include a startling array of musical and rhetorical ideas. The notion of mixed messages relates to Muhly’s engagement with our own virtual age of myriad messages (taking over Kant’s ideal of a conversational social space) even replacing standard notions of self-identical subjectivity with ‘Facebook’, ‘Twitter’ etc , rendering the subject as literally ‘lost in translation’. As Muhly contends: …’the possibilities of miscommunication…especially when mediated by texting, e-mailing etc…opens up new musical possibilities based on ambiguity, transformation, and layering, which can be seen as joyful…but also as menacing; each idea contains its own contradiction’. It sounds here as though Muhly has been reading (or misreading) Derrida’s prismatic text ‘Le Carte Postale’, with doses of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics?. The opening for mostly energetic ostinato clusters in the strings, with woodwind and percussive interjections, sounded like an exercise in movement, or speed we tend to find in minimalists like Adams and Reich, who were influential in Muhly’s musical development. But Mixed Messages supersedes this kind of influence.  In post-modern style the work is quite subtely interpolated with ideas from pop-music, film soundtracks, and past orchestral/operatic ‘classic’ works compositions. Muhly says,perhaps with a touch of irony, that ‘secretly’ there is a more ‘romantic’ tone operating in the works hermetically sealed sub-textural strata of sounds.. And in the transformation, just before the putative coda, there is a long lyrical line-mezzo-forte- on celli’, which, however, is open to any kind of transmutation.  Throughout the work I particualy liked the off-beat interruptions in the percussion superbly played and timed. The work ends quite abruptly. As the composer explains: ‘…as if someone got the wrong message and turned off the machine before it was finished.’  I can’t imagine Muhly’s work being more empathetically played. It gave the marvellous Philadelphia Orchestra the chance to project every one of its sections, not exactly in the style of a concerto for orchestra, but maybe in a pocket, ironic version of one. Predictably Nézet-Séguin responded to every twist and turn in the work – no doubt the outcome of talking though the work extensively with the composer.

I read recently an essay on Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto  in which the writer refers to the ‘utter despair’ of the first movement ‘Nocturne’. Like so many Western discourses on Russian culture this rather misses the point. Utter despair seems to indicate  a moment of collapse or surrender, but this music has nothing to do with the implications of  resignation, of surrender.  It is redolent more of a deep brooding defiance with stalking basses and celli, which  project a sense of trenchant stoicism, a kind  of dark drive. But, on another level, why can’t we simply refer to it as a dark brooding movement in A minor? The appellation ‘Nocturne’ is not meant in the traditional sense as ‘night’ music; it functions   as a metaphor for a more psychological dark drama, just as the ‘Hymn to the Night’ in Act Two of Tristan is a metaphor for dark erotic passion. I can’t think of a modern composer who is so assailed by non- musical political, emotive metaphors than Shostakovich. Perhaps if we ditch all this dense and superfluous metaphoricality we might start to understand Shostakovich’s music with more clarity and insight.

As the opening ‘Nocturme’ unfolded I sensed a rare and intense sense of dialogue between soloist and conductor; and there was gladly no hint of mannerism or agogic tempo manipulation. This is very much a ‘symphonic’ concerto where the orchestra does not so much accompany the soloist as play in unison with her. Batiashvili contoured the ‘rising’ and ‘ falling’ melodies and quasi melodious figurations with superb confidence and technical assurance, although never sounding ‘virtuosic’ for the sake of sounding ‘virtuosic’. The opening theme of the ‘Nocturne’ which recurs as a kind of ritornello throughout the concerto was never underlined but clearly projected. The ferocious energy of the following scherzo, with its intonation of the composers DSCH motif,  was once described by David Oistrakh (the work’s dedicatee) as ‘fiendish’ – and that ferocious energy was certainly unleashed tonight. Especially notable here was Nézet-Séguin ‘s grip  on the most complex rhythmic inflections and deflections. The Philadelphia woodwind were in fine form – superbly balanced and audible even in the most eruptive tutti sections.  I have heard the Pasacaglia movement described as ‘noble’ which I suppose has some resonance with the Baroque (and earlier) origins of this ancient dance formation, but the starkness of the tone, no trumpets or trombones  but timpani strokes with a single tuba and stark, sombre horns, surely implies something much more modern and menacing. Shostakovich is not often spoken about in terms of orchestral/instrumental innovation, but the unusual tones of stoic defiance and a haunting quality are quite unique. Of especial mention here was the superb contribution from the Philadelphia’s timpanist, always impressively ‘there’ in his octave doubling of the string bass line,  but never bashed out as is sometimes the case.  Batiashvili’s rendition of the long and difficult extended cadenza, which emerges from the passacaglia and  in which the main theme of the scherzo is clearly resonant, was something of a tour de force. In places it almost reminded me of the energy and total musicality of Oistrakh, but this was totally in keeping with Batiashvili’s own rendition throughout the concerto. Again there was staggering virtuosity, as the composer intended, but it never sounded merely ‘virtuosic’  in the flashy sense. The rondo finale with its hint of the trepak folk dance, and even shades of the finale from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, was delivered with tremendous energy, with the return of the passacaglia theme, initiated by the horn towards the coda  clearly delineated by both soloist and conductor.  The brilliant coda itself was driven with an irresistible tone of high spirits although in Shostakovich’s most radiant music there is a lurking tone of the ‘hectic’, the ‘fiendish’, as Oistrakh so perceptively observed. I heard recently another fine rendition of this concerto from Leonidas Kavakos which I thought superb. But if anything Batiashvili came over as even more compelling in this superbly original and compelling concerto. As a fitting encore Batiashvili teamed up with Nezet-Seguin’s piano for a fine and sensitive rendition of one of the Tchaikovsky Romances for violin and piano, a selection of which they have recently recorded.

The Philadelphia Orchestra have a very special relationship with Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. Their then chief conductor Stokowski gave the premiere in 1936, and later in 1939 the composer himself conducted the symphony for its first recording again with the Philadelphians. Later Stokowski’s successor Eugene Ormandy gave many fine performances, at least two of which he recorded, and coming closer to our own era Charles Dutoit has conducted and recorded the work with the same orchestra. Nézet-Séguin  conducted quite a straight-forward but compelling rendition. He did slow down for the second lyrical subject in the first movement, but so do the composer and Stokowski. The Third Symphony is less inflated and sentimental than the first two symphonies with a really cogently argued second movement which develops into a scintillating scherzo with lightly scored orchestral textures contrasted with exuberant march-like tutti passages. Here the Philadelphians really excelled with wonderfully buoyant and taut rhythms. The movement’s atmospheric nine bar opening horn solo over sonorous harp chords was absolutely enchanting with a wonderful singing tone of the orchestra’s first horn, the whole symphony worth hearing for this alone! The final movement with its ongoing drive, virtuosity and sustained fast fugue were invested with an energy and contrasting finesse which would be difficult to match, let alone surpass. The appearance of one of the composer’s favourite motifs, the ‘Dies irae’, in the last statement of the opening motto theme towards the coda was intoned with a rhythmic, dynamic inflection which was both subtle and ominous. Nézet-Séguin  clearly understands that nothing here needs to be emphasised or underlined, something Stokowski, for one, never quite understood, inclined, as he was, to all kinds of distorting rubato and mannerisms. With this in mind, I would contend that the Philadelphia Orchestra is as fine today as it has ever been. And this says a lot for their new principal conductor Nezet-Seguin, who is scrupulous in matters of form, structure and detail, while never imposing his will above that of the composers. I look forward to many more concerts and recordings (especially of new music) from this conductor and orchestra.

As an encore Nézet-Séguin gave us a ravishing and flowing rendition of the composer’s own orchestral arrangement of the enchanting Vocalise.

Geoff Diggines.     



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