Gergiev out and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in for the Vienna Philharmonic’s Carnegie Hall concerts

United StatesUnited States Various: Seong-Jin Cho (piano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York, 25 & 26.2.2022. (RP)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Chris Lee

25 February
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.2, Op.18; Symphony No.2, Op.27

26 February
Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2
Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade

Numerous times over the past several weeks, I stopped to linger outside Carnegie Hall and look at the placards announcing three concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Valery Gergiev conducting. The tantalizing programs of some of the most popular works by Russian and French composers took place as scheduled, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine placed Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium instead of Gergiev.

Seong-Jin Cho and Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Chris Lee

Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Philharmonic acted swiftly and decisively to replace Gergiev. Nézet-Séguin was close at hand, preparing for the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever performances of the original five-act French version of Verdi’s Don Carlo the following week. It took a few hours more to find a replacement for Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, the originally scheduled soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2. Seong-Jin Cho was flown in from Berlin.

Gergiev’s close relationship with Vladimir Putin, with whom he has been friends since the 1990s when Gergiev was the leader of the Kirov Theatre (now the Mariinsky) and Putin was a city official in St. Petersburg, has brought out protesters before in New York. The conductor, as had Matsuev, publicly endorsed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The hashtag #CancelGergiev was trending on Twitter, and protests against Russia’s actions were taking place in Times Square, just a few blocks from Carnegie Hall. Cars with protestors waiving Ukrainian flags brought traffic to a standstill in Midtown Manhattan. Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Philharmonic did the right thing – and the sensible one – by replacing Gergiev and Matsuev.

Cho, Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra were greeted with tumultuous applause at the first concert. What followed were emotion-laden performances of two of Rachmaninoff’s most popular works, his Piano Concerto No.2 and Symphony No.2. Rachmaninoff composed both prior to emigrating to the US in 1918, one year after the Russian Revolution. He never returned to his native country and died in Beverly Hills in 1943.

Nézet-Séguin led a sweeping performance of the concerto that was at times dark and brooding but always overflowing with passion. The various instrumental solos were achingly beautiful. If balance was sometimes off, scant rehearsal time and the emotions of the day were undoubtedly responsible for that.

The great Polish pianist Josef Hofmann one remarked, ‘Rachmaninoff was created from steel and gold: steel in his hands and gold in his heart’. Silver, however, was the precious metal that Cho’s playing brought to mind. Virtuosity was sublimated to his concept of the concerto as one long expressive arc in which beauty and emotion were paramount.

For an encore, Cho played Tchaikovsky’s ‘October: Autumn Song’ from The Seasons, a set of twelve pieces for solo piano each named after a month of the year. It is a dreamy work, which Cho played with shimmering tone and a tinge of melancholy.

Nézet-Séguin likes a big sound, and the Vienna Philharmonic filled Carnegie Hall with just that in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2. Nowadays, one doesn’t experience many concertmasters of the old school like Volkhard Steude: forces of nature who can propel an orchestra to the heights of grandeur and glory by sheer will and authority. If Nézet-Séguin, who himself was a wonder to watch, wanted volumes of magnificent sound, Steude made sure that he got it.

There were playful, lighter moments in the performance, but this was muscular and bold Rachmaninoff. The warmth of the cellos and brightness of the woodwinds were there, but it was the sweeping melodies in the strings and the powerful waves of sound from the brass that brought the audience to its feet.

On the following evening, Nézet-Séguin waited patiently till the few stragglers found their seats and the audience was completely still before cueing the orchestra’s solo flute, Karl-Heinz Schütz, to begin Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Those beautiful, mysterious tones were an invitation into a scintillating musical world that was totally removed from the cares of the world.

There was a remarkable transformation of the orchestra’s sound from the prior evening’s concert, especially in the violins where gossamer threads of sound replaced the vibrant sound that had coursed through the Rachmaninoff. The entire string section achieved a level of luminosity that was simply stunning. It was also a night to enjoy the orchestra’s marvelous woodwind section, who played with such panache.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé calls for a particularly large orchestra but, even so, this was a performance marked by lightness and transparency. It was also one of the most erotic readings of the score imaginable. Wave after wave of swelling brass and throbbing strings reached frenzied heights that receded in volume, but never in intensity, until the tension was released in the ecstatic final chord.

The final work on the program was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in which mystery and magic replaced sexual tension in this magical carpet ride of sound. Daniel Ottensamer’s jaunty clarinet solos injected humor into the performance, but it was Steude’s violin solos that took flight. After the orchestra exalted in the brilliant musical festival which brings the work to its frenzied climax, the solo violin soared to its highest register with the music fading into thin air.

Rick Perdian

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