Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestra (1st review)

Conductor shortage? Where?

Nézet-Séguin: Echoes of Muti.
Nézet-Séguin: Echoes of Muti.

Let the auditions continue: Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the young music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic, made a return appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra after his well-received debut last year.

The program was substantial: Orion, by the short-lived French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier; the Brahms First Piano Concerto, with the pianist Nicholas Angelich; and Franck's Symphony in D minor.

Vivier described his Orion, a 17-minute work for large orchestra, as "the ecstasy-euphoria of egocentric despair." Whatever. Its principal theme is sounded on the trumpet, which continues to play a prominent role in the proceedings. A subtle use of gongs reflects the composer's sojourn in Bali, and a vocalization at the end was effectively delivered by timpanist Don Liuzzi. A first hearing left me neither in ecstasy nor despair, but willing to hear more of the composer's well-wrought work.

The Brahms First is the best piano concerto not written by Mozart or Beethoven. Until his First Symphony, completed nearly two decades later, it was Brahms's most impressive orchestral composition. The heaven-storming introduction possesses a gravitas not heard since Beethoven, and the score's technical demands and emotional complexity make it still one of the heroic challenges of the repertory.

Indulging his soloist

The diminutive Nézet-Séguin and the huge, shambling Angelich made quite a contrast as they came onstage for the performance, and Nézet-Séguin indulged his soloist overmuch in the slow tempos, which tended to pull the textures of the music apart. Not that Angelich was always slow, and his sometimes radical changes of tempo put me in mind of Lang Lang at times. But Angelich's overall performance was thoughtful and considered, and, unlike Lang's mannered self-indulgences, he made a consistent if not always convincing case for his choices. Certainly Angelich possesses the scale and technique the work requires, as well as a delicacy of touch that drew much beauty from a work that contains some of Brahms's most lyrical writing.

A small but significant repertoire of Wagner-influenced French symphonies blossomed at the end of the 19th Century— not exactly a school, but at least a trend. These include Franck's lone symphony, completed when he was 66, Ernest Chausson's youthful and likewise lone Symphony in B flat, that of Paul Dukas, and the four symphonies of the neglected Alberic Magnard. A certain lucklessness pursued this group; Franck died two years later, still very much in his compositional prime; Chausson was killed when his bicycle crashed into a wall; and Magnard was slain defending his house against German invaders in 1914.

(Claude Vivier trumped even this tragic litany: His life was cut short at 34 by rough trade he'd picked up in Paris.)

"'Destined to vanish'

The Franck symphony, like the Brahms D minor concerto, was poorly received at its premiere, with one critic declaring that it was "destined to vanish at once." Far from it, of course, and in Charles Munch's day it was an oft-saddled warhorse, though it's less frequently heard today.

Like Victorian furniture, the score is impressive, but sometimes heavy. Its Wagner-style textures and harmonies are densely woven. Wagnerian, too, is the motif that sounds, sometimes insistently, in each of its three movements, though there are moments of relief in the central allegretto, and the work drives to a triumphant close.

Nézet-Séguin, relieved of the burdens of an accompanist, led briskly, and the Orchestra, particularly in the first movement, had a freshness and vigor reminiscent of its salad days with Riccardo Muti.♦

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read another review by Michael Woods, click here.

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