From the Philadelphians, a Schubert Ninth that Stopped for No Man

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schubert: Jan Lisiecki (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.3.2019. (BJ)

Jan Lisiecki (c) Mathias Bothor/DG
Jan Lisiecki (c) Mathias Bothor/DG

Haydn – L’isola disabitata, Overture
Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.25
Schubert – Symphony No.9 D.944, ‘Great C major’

The nub of classical symphonic style was the challenge it presented to composers in balancing the disparate demands of unity and of contrast. Each composer of stature has had his own creative solution — but quite apart from decisions about theme and key at the compositional level, performers too play an important part in realizing such decisions in actual sound for actual listeners.

The last hundred years have offered a fascinating view of the diverse ways in which conductors’ responses to this challenge have laid bare what might be called their personal interpretative bias. There have been great musicians that have stressed overall formal unity, and others for whom the vivid evocation of local detail has seemed paramount. For example, one former chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, Willem Mengelberg, stands as a prime embodiment of the impulse toward detail, whereas Eduard van Beinum, who succeeded him in 1945, was above all else a unity man.

The example is highly relevant to consideration of the performance of Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ Symphony that Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted on this occasion. In various areas of the repertoire, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director has shown himself able to balance unity and contrast in a way that gives due prominence to both; his magisterial account of Brahms’s Third Symphony back in 2014 served as a triumphant demonstration of that ability. His approach to Schubert’s masterpiece in this concert, on the other hand, located most of its emphasis emphatically in the projection of an overarching unity that brooked no lingering to savor the magic of incidental detail. This was a reading that had no time to spend on grandiosity, but concentrated uncompromisingly on the goal-oriented forward motion that is certainly a central aspect — though not the only aspect — of the music’s structural and expressive character.

I will confess that, as a result, some of my favorite individual inspirations in the work, such as that delicious little downward chromatic scale for the basses in the Scherzo’s trio section, made less impact than they might have. But it could be said also that the prevailing insistence on forward motion, revealed at the start by the exciting simplicity with which the conductor managed the transition from the introduction into the first movement’s main Allegro, and equally by his refusal to hit the brakes for the reprise of the introduction’s theme at the end of that movement, was not without a vital consequence of its own. (The final coda of the Brahms First, incidentally, poses a similar problem — or opportunity — for the conductor: to slow or not to slow?; and Van Beinum was particularly single-minded in hewing firmly to the main tempo.) The course Nézet-Séguin followed here may well have had the further result that the one thrilling stroke where he did make an emphatic pause — that bloodcurdling moment in which the fluent progress of the slow movement is brought to a juddering halt by a triple-forte outbreak of chords followed by a measure of stunned silence — emerged as quite possibly the most crucial and central element in the whole symphony. And given Nézet-Séguin’s frequently attested mastery of the long view, I would not put it past him to have developed his interpretation of the work with just such a consideration in mind.

The orchestra played its part superbly throughout, and associate principal oboist Peter Smith, who had a hard act to follow when the great Richard Woodhams retired last year, won a warm ovation especially with his beguiling treatment of the slow movement’s main theme. The program had opened with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first performance — delayed by only 240 years! — of the overture to Haydn’s opera L’isola disabitata, a thoroughly attractive piece that drew exhilarating prestidigitation from the basses. Exhilaration was also the watchword (or listenword?), along with some notably graceful phrasing, in the afternoon’s performance of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, in which the soloist was Jan Lisiecki, a Canadian citizen of Polish descent. A tall, slim 23-year-old, he is clearly a pianist amply capable of dispatching the most taxing parts with unfazed aplomb, and his platform manner is dignified and charming. He left me strongly desirous of making his further acquaintance in more artistically challenging repertoire — I imagine he must be a formidable Mozartean.

Bernard Jacobson

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