Urgency Over Depth: Missing the Spirit of Bruckner

United StatesUnited States Haydn and Bruckner: Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 21.1.2016 (BJ)

Haydn: Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, “Drum Roll”
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, “Romantic”

Since I first heard him in the flesh a little over a year ago, Yannick Nézet-Séguin has impressed and delighted me across a wide range of repertoire, Most notable of all have been stunning performances of Brahms’s Third Symphony and Handel’s Messiah, but there have been notable successes also in composers ranging from Mahler, Strauss, and Sibelius to Shostakovich and Bernstein.

Only two performances, of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, have, along with much to admire, yielded major disappointment–until now. This second program in the music director’s three-week survey of the music of Vienna began well enough, with an enjoyable if hardly revelatory account of Haydn’s great “Drum Roll” Symphony (a slightly eccentric choice in the context, since Haydn, though a Vienna resident at the time, wrote it in and for London). But the performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony after intermission seemed to me to miss the spirit of the work almost completely.

Even within my relatively restricted years of experience with The Philadelphia Orchestra, its Bruckner performances have had a not altogether consistent record of success, especially where the realization of the brass parts was concerned. There have been some superb interpretations of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies by such conductors as Riccardo Muti and Stanisław Skrowaczewski, as well as a No. 3 conducted by the late-lamented Kurt Masur highlighted by a major-key brass chord so memorable that its radiant glow still rings vividly in my mind’s ear. On the other hand, I remember an Ormandy recording of Bruckner in which the brass parts were biffed out as if they were being played on percussion instruments.

The brass problem on the present occasion, most strikingly in the last movement, was quite different. It was simply that all the big dramatic proclamations from that section of the orchestra were sustained with a tone not at all mellow but verging on sheer coarseness; and this went with textures all through the work that paradoxically combined a clotted quality often allowing subordinate lines to obscure the main melody with thinness of tone and insufficient resonance in the bass.

Now, since by common consent the orchestra under Nézet-Séguin is playing these days as superbly as it has played in many years, the responsibility for such deficiencies in this instance must surely be laid at the door, not of the players, but of the conductor. And aside from such admittedly personal judgements, the scherzo afforded a perversity that was clearly at odds with the intentions the composer made clear in his score. In at least the most authoritative of the work’s several versions, you will find, spelled out in words, the requirement: “The quarter-notes in the hunt theme always somewhat longer.” Yet in this performance they were consistently played very short, and this seemed to accentuate a general emphasis of urgency over depth.

As I have previously had occasion to remark, no conductor with less than many decades of experience–perhaps indeed no conductor at all–can be expected to excel equally in every branch of musical literature. But it was surprising to encounter a performance so disappointing of music for which the conductor has expressed special enthusiasm.

Bernard Jacobson

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