Remarkable Beethoven Concerto from Emanuel Ax and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: Emanuel Ax (piano), The Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.6.2015. (GD)

Beethoven:   Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64


This programme of concerto and symphony could have well included an overture to set the mood of a trenchant C minor. The ‘Coriolan’ Overture, also in C minor, comes instantly to mind here. But in a sense to compensate for this Nézet-Séguin and Emanuel Ax turned in a quite remarkable rendition of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. This was evident in urgency and intensity Nézet-Séguin invested in the bold opening orchestra ritornello, Like Mozart’s later piano concerti (especially the great C major concerto K 503) Beethoven greatly extended this ritornello, building up a tension which anticipates the first dramatic piano entry. Nézet-Séguin emphasised the basic cadential theme in dotted rhythm with military sounding timpani to the fore. Although a quite large string section was deployed, timpani and brass (horns trumpets) were never obscured as they often are. The ensuing entrance of the solo piano, fortified by ascending scales and leading to the principal subject boldly proclaimed in octaves, was wonderfully and dramatically timed. And throughout the concerto there was an exceptional sense of rapport and dialogue between soloist and conductor. Throughout this first movement the basic tempo never flagged or sagged. Later in the development both soloist and conductor perfectly articulated the exchanges between piano and strings reflecting on the opening basic thematic gesture; the martial cadential motive which permeates the whole movement. The cadenza, Beethoven’s own, finally  releasing the long-postponed C minor cadence, was wonderfully paced and played by Ax, giving full declamation to the wide range of material (re-casted from the intricacies of the movement). The mysterious timpani taps, which conclude the cadenza and initiate the movements coda, were played with just the right degree of sotto voce clarity underlined by a distant but ominous tension.

In the Largo the mood of lyrical transformation was caught to perfection with Ax in his opening phrase intoning the ‘far-off realm of enchantment’ suggested by the relatively distant key of E major. Soloist and conductor never allowed the music to meander or drag, and the Philadelphians strings and wood-wind maintained a beautifully veiled quality which, however never compromised the superb clarity of every phrase. The mid-section with piano arpeggios in dialogue with bassoon and flute was exquisitely contoured and phrased. The Rondo finale with its moments of sudden tension contrasted with song-like lyrical interludes, its mid-movement quite extended fugal commentary on the main theme, its affirmative 6/8 Presto coda, were all brought off with staggering insight and virtuosity, but never virtuosity for its own sake. Again the Philadelphians excelled, with an incredible unity in all sections. The strings played in perfect unity but never sounded plush or glossy, as they did at times under there former director Ormandy. And vibrato was always judiciously applied. My only quibble is that throughout the concert antiphonal violins were not deployed.

As an encore Ax and Nézet-Séguin  sat together for a charming performance of the A major waltz from Brahms’ Op 39 waltzes for four hands.

Nézet-Séguin conducted the opening ‘Andante’ of the Tchaikovsky at roughly crotchet = 80 (the composer’s own marking). Here, he  ensured that the  music didn’t drag, as in so many renditions disobedient to the composer. The most lucid clarity emerged from the Philadelphia’s bassoons and clarinets in low register interspersed in dour transparency  with the famous motto theme in the lower strings. In fact,  everything in the exposition ‘Allegro con anima’ went as well as I have ever heard it go – just as much to do with the famous orchestra, who are steeped in this music from the days of days of Stokowski and Ormandy, as with the conductor. But when we arrived at the big D major second subject lyrical theme on strings  Nézet-Séguin made a large ritardando. Why? Tchaikovsky certainly doesn’t ask for this? He asks for a ‘molto expressivo’ but that does not imply, as far as I can discern, such a tiresome tempo distortion. Having made this critical point the Philadelphians played the melody with such poise and elegance (it could almost have come from Swan Lake) that criticism   was stifled temporarily. When I got home however and played the same passage with Cantelli and Markevitch, I was reassured that   Nézet-Séguin’s  ritardando was patently unnecessary!

The rest of the performance was a joy. The wonderful horn enunciation of the ‘Andante cantabile’ melody had just the right degree of vibrato, almost Russian sounding but not quite. Nézet-Séguin articulated the powerful (tutti) pronunciation of the motto theme in the home key (modulated with a dramatic F sharp minor) with  potent but controlled energy. And the noble D major tutti refrain melody,  with the most subtle rubato inflections; qualified this time by the composer’s ‘alcuna licenza’ marking.

I was particularly taken by the seldom heard muted horn intonations towards the end of the ‘Valse’ movement, which added a slightly sinister tone to the music; once again the trio section here,  had just the right degree of balletic poise and charm.

For once,  the finale –  from ‘Andante maestoso’ leading to ‘Allegro vivace’ –  never sounded bombastic (as it certainly can do in the hands of conductors making a grandiose point.) The final peroration, and triumphant affirmation of the motto theme developed symphonically from the varied and  complex harmonic/tonal modulations of the finale’s main ‘Allegro’,  never sounded ‘pasted on’, so to speak. And I could hear every configuration in the strings and woodwind, which usually get drowned out in more routine performances. Tovey famously took Tchaikovsky’s detractors (of this symphony in particular) to task and reaffirmed the work as belonging to the the great symphonic tradition; with the added observation that the finale in particular exudes a sense of enjoyment, not just in itself, but in reflecting all enjoyment’s varying tonalities and vicissitudes. This is the exact feeling I had tonight at the end of this great symphony.

Overall it was a real pleasure listening to this wonderfrul orchestra over two nights. As implied above they sound even more splendid now than they did under their former legendary music directors. In the Beethoven concerto, and even with a large body of strings, they achieved a degree of power and grainy clarity the equal of most ‘period’ ensembles. All this due in large part to their dynamic present chief conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

No final encores were offered

Geoff Diggines

To read a recent review of the Philadelphia in Dresden see



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