The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4

A shared ascending scale

This weekend, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin completed its Brahms cycle with a performance of his Fourth Symphony. Earlier this season, he conducted the First and Second Symphonies, while Herbert Blomstedt led the orchestra in the Third a week before this concert. But you didn’t think this was going to be ho-hum, more “Brahms as usual,” right?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin added a brief music-appreciation lecture to the program. (Photo by Jan Regan)

Of course not. Nézet-Séguin had a few cards up his sleeve, with some fascinating disclosures about the German masters.

Unlikely pairing

Bach and Brahms may not be the most likely pairing for a concert program. Bach is Baroque, tethered to the church he loved, a family man from whom music poured almost effortlessly from a young age. In contrast, Brahms is Romantic, but a more ponderous Victorian Romanticism than Chopin's or Wagner’s flight-of-fancy effusions. Brahms was a bachelor who tirelessly revised and rethought his output, and organized religion was not his cup of tea. Yet, as Brahms’s life neared its end at the 19th century’s close, he drew on a lifelong regard for Bach in completing his own valedictory masterworks.

Between programs, Nézet-Séguin walked unexpectedly to the podium and revealed some links between the next work (Bach’s Cantata No. 150) and the last movement of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor.

That last movement is a series of variations on eight chords that form part of the structure of the cantata’s own last movement. Peter Richard Conte, best known as “Wanamaker Grand Court Organist at Macy’s,” soloed on the Kimmel Center’s instrument, providing irrefutable examples from each work. Nézet-Séguin is absolutely brilliant in illuminating selections with these little side chats in some of his concerts, not only helping us understand the music but eliminating the stuffiness associated with classical fare.

So how was Brahms’s Fourth? Phenomenal. I haven’t heard too many performances by this orchestra more enthusiastically greeted. Perhaps this performance style was a bit free and loose, but being fast and loud brings excitement to any work. Beyond this deliberate infusion of energy, profound musical thought took place, alongside a balance of forces both subtle and sublime, and some glorious sectional and solo playing.

Darkness is holy

A wonderful first-movement duet showcases the clarinet (Samuel Caviezel, associate principal clarinetist) and bassoon (Daniel Matsukawa, principal). The clarinet is sometimes the forgotten enchanter of the woodwind forest. Neither a pleasant rasp like a double reed nor a haunting echo like the French horn (often grouped with the winds), the clarinet’s pure, liquid strains refresh, beguile, and revive. It possesses a warm, woodsy quality not unlike the resonance of strings, but with the added dimension of living breath.

Violist Rachel Ku. (Photo by Jessica Griffin)
Violist Rachel Ku. (Photo by Jessica Griffin)

Nézet-Séguin showed miraculous intensity throughout, clustering the symphony’s first and second movements as though they were tied together (they almost are, by horns), and achieving the same effect with movements three and four. This resulted in a sense of urgency and unity, propelling the work through a brass choir, flute solo, and various other oases to a strong conclusion.

The concert opened with Brahms’s solemn Chorale Preludes (a form also beloved by Bach). This performance featured a new transcription by Detlev Glanert, commissioned by the orchestra. In his spontaneous chat, Nézet-Séguin rightly referred to these hymn-based works as solemn and majestic. C.S. Lewis once observed that holy places are dark places; these preludes -- some played on the organ by Conte, others transcribed for orchestra -- lack the rousing charm of an overture, instead evoking the sinking grandeur of twilight.

The selection I most enjoyed was Bach’s cantata. Four talented young soloists joined a much scaled-down orchestra for a work that, despite the number 150, was possibly Bach’s first cantata. For all that, it is harmonically imaginative, loaded with vivid musical descriptions of phrases and words, sung with bright intensity by Vanessa Vasquez, soprano; Chrystal E. Williams, mezzo-soprano; Jonas Hacker, tenor; and André Courville, bass-baritone. The artists also functioned as the chorus.

It was quite a balancing act to size down the orchestra just enough to capture the lightness of an 18th-century ensemble without drowning in Verizon Hall’s cavernous recesses. This cantata is known as “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (“I long after thee, Lord”). The performance was on fire with feeling under Nézet-Séguin. It wasn’t church singing; it was real drama, drawn from the text and music by a master conductor. This augurs well for Nézet-Séguin’s future at the Met, as well as for further exciting fare at local venues.

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