In Philadelphia, Three Triumphant Weeks with Yannick Nézet-Séguin

United StatesUnited States Various composers: Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 13.4,14.4 and 12.5.2019 (BJ)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Philadelphia Orchestra


Weber, Schumann, and Beethoven: Jonathan Biss (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

Weber – Overture to Der Freischütz
Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op.55, Eroica


Ravel, Debussy, and Bruckner: Curtis Symphony Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Yue Bae (conductors), members of Choral Arts Philadelphia (Matthew Glandorf, choral preparation

Ravel Une Barque sur l’océan
Bruckner – Symphony No.9 in D minor


Mahler: Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

Mahler – Symphony No.9

Yannick Nézet-Séguin was already scheduled to conduct two major icons of the symphonic repertoire — Bruckner’s and Mahler’s Ninth Symphonies — in Philadelphia between mid-April and mid-May. But then Myung-Whun Chung was forced by visa problems to withdraw to his scheduled April engagement, which was to feature Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony; Nézet-Séguin jumped into the breach, and thus we were treated to the chance of checking out the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director’s talents in a sort of mini-tour of the classical, high romantic, and late romantic symphonic styles all within five weeks.

It has become evident over the past few seasons that those talents are indeed formidable, and that they encompass areas of the repertoire where superficial thinking might not expect Nézet-Séguin to feel at home, such as Handel’s Messiah, of which, in 2015, he gave one of the greatest performances I have ever encountered in a lifetime of hearing it conducted by all the usual suspects. Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler fit more easily into what might be called orchestral music directors’ natural stamping grounds. Though there have been occasions when, since moving back to Philadelphia in 2014, I have found myself less than completely persuaded of his sympathy for the style and character of one or another composer’s music, such occasions have been rare, and they have fitted into a process in which that sympathy has grown steadily more convincing.

My first experience of the maestro’s Beethoven four years ago left me less than satisfied, but later encounters have developed a more and more complete affinity for the composer — to match the thrillingly vivid understanding he showed with a superb Brahms Third Symphony performance in December 2014 — and the Eroica he gave us on this occasion, like the Bruckner and Mahler works in subsequent weeks, demonstrated that there are very few areas of the symphonic repertoire left in which Nézet-Séguin sounds less than totally authoritative.

To start with, all three of these concerts were triumphant exhibitions of orchestral playing at its brilliant best — and I do not except the largely student ranks of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra from that accolade, for it was hard to imagine that Bruckner’s monumental unfinished Ninth Symphony could have been played better than this by any orchestra in the world. How old are you, dear reader? For this octogenarian listener, one of the joys of such a composer and orchestra match-up consists in witnessing players still in the bloom of youth entering with utter conviction into the expressive world of the composer, half a century their senior, who piously dedicated his scores ‘To my dear God’. The symphony’s moderately paced and definitely slow outer movements lacked nothing in either warmth or dignity, but it was in the scherzo that the sheer physical violence with which the strings attacked their music seemed to benefit from a characteristically youthful freedom from inhibition, evoking the spirit not so much of Mahler — whose music Bruckner’s rarely resembles, despite the too frequent facile pairing of their names by commentators and listeners alike — as, much more unexpectedly, of Shostakovich, whose scherzos often display a similar kind of slashing hostility.

In its less unexpected way, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Eroica was similarly compelling. Nézet-Séguin took the kind of rapid tempos that approached Beethoven’s distinctly bracing metronome marks, and he allowed sufficient flexibility to accommodate the moments of heightened expressivity. And the orchestra sounded mostly superb, with highlights including Jeffrey Khaner’s dazzling account of the flute solo variation in the finale, and beautifully nuanced timpani work by Don Liuzzi, who combines power and delicacy with an insight and assurance that few exponents of the instrument can match.

My only serious complaint was the omission of the first movement repeat. The integrity of Beethoven’s form is such that what happens later, in the development section and beyond, is strongly affected by what has or hasn’t been repeated in the exposition. (I suppose the decision to disregard the repeat sign may just have been a mere housekeeping matter: could the omission have saved the concert from going into overtime?)

After all the Eroicas and all the Mahler Ninths I have heard over the years, I found it interesting to compare Nézet-Séguin’s platform manner retrospectively with that of Carlo Maria Giulini, who conducted both works superbly. It was, I think, Sir Adrian Boult who said that a performance doesn’t begin with the first notes played by the orchestra — it already began when the conductor emerged from the wings. When Giulini was proceeding with unshakable dignity toward the podium, his long baton held before him at a 45-degree downward angle, you could not but be aware from the very first sighting that you were in the presence of a deep spirituality shaped by years — indeed, by centuries — of tradition.

Times change, and quickly. Giulini was a man of the middle and late 20th century — a period when, during Muti’s tenure at the head of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the public relations department would never have dreamed of putting out a press release that called the music director ‘Riccardo’. In the present aspiringly customer-friendly era, Nézet-Séguin — oh, all right, Yannick — comes bounding on stage with a hail-fellow-well-met affability quite different from the stateliness of Giulini (whom he proudly acknowledges as his late mentor) or the wound-up introspectiveness of Muti. And the wonderful thing about this indubitably gifted conductor is that he is able to project this friendly ease of manner without ever losing touch with the thread that binds him to those centuries of dedicated and serious musical tradition.

His Eroica was preceded by a luxuriant performance of the overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz, and by Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which demonstrated that Jonathan Biss is very definitely a pianist rather than a fortist: his tone in loud passages tends to be harshly hammered, but the quieter parts of the work drew some exquisite soft sonorities and affectionate phrasing from him. The Curtis concert the next evening included a performance of Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’océan skillfully led by conducting fellow Yue Bao, followed by Nézet-Séguin’s polished account of the three Nocturnes, of which the second is perhaps the most Ravel-ish music Debussy ever wrote.

In the Eroica, the ragged trio in the third movement had been the performance’s only notably unsuccessful moment. For the Mahler Ninth, happily, principal horn Jennifer Montone was once again on song. So, for that matter, was the whole large orchestra. It was hard not to be agreeably conscious throughout the performance — along with the rapturous ovation it elicited — that this was truly one of the world’s greatest orchestras we were hearing.

More emphatically perhaps than any other symphony, Mahler’s Ninth cries out — almost literally! — for the formerly familiar orchestra seating with the first violins on the conductor’s left and the seconds on his right, a pattern that a number of conductors, but not Nézet-Séguin, have revived in recent years. For very nearly a whole minute, after the half-dozen ominous preparatory measures that set the symphony on its deeply conflicted course, Mahler entrusts the caressing main theme to the second violins. When the firsts finally enter, it effects a powerfully imaginative opening up of the sound and of the stage picture, and we lose something if the second violins are sitting in their now more customary position behind the first violin section.

So far as the actual sound was concerned, there was nothing to complain about from that moment through to the end of the symphony. Yet I cannot refrain from saying that, despite the splendor and sheen with which the notes of the score were bodied forth, I was not bowled over by the performance. It is hard to explain why, but I feel it may be that Nézet-Séguin placed more emphasis on the protracted tension and fraught expectancy that are admittedly characteristic of the work, and perhaps not enough to the moments of hard-won acceptance that eventually emerge as no less fundamental to its message.

That sense of acceptance is what I have come away feeling after the greatest performances of the symphony I have been lucky enough to hear — performances conducted by the sadly underrated Jascha Horenstein, by Franz Welser-Möst, and by Giulini himself. The message this time may have been obscured a tad by Nézet-Séguin’s focus on intensely questing upper parts to the detriment of the vertiginous harmonic sideslips beneath them and the consolatory themes that come increasingly to dominate the symphony’s emotional landscape. But that should not be allowed to steal our attention and appreciation from three weeks of memorable music-making and spectacular orchestral playing.

Bernard Jacobson

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