Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a pillar of civilization, right up there with Hamlet and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In my half-century-plus lifetime, I’ve heard it performed live more times than I care to count, and I don’t recall any time that the audience wasn’t swept to its feet at the rousing conclusion.
This was certainly the case for last weekend’s often-brilliant performance. So it’s with an almost embarrassed snootiness that I submit this critique.
The good news, broadly speaking, is that Yannick Nézet-Séguin is emerging as an artist of notable imagination and daring. That can only be good news for an institution that badly needs to have a fire lit under its rear.
In his yet short tenure here, Nézet-Séguin has displayed a range of interpretive approaches and a sense that he’s truly engaged in a contemporary attitude towards classical music.
One side of his personality was revealed last spring, in what was the highlight, to date, of his time here: a magisterial production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. There were some fleet tempos within his overall conception of the work, but the overriding impression was one of sublime repose and reflection— a three hour journey that made time stand still.
This same conductor approached the Beethoven Ninth in an entirely different style. He threw himself into the music, with bracing tempos and a sense of spontaneity that was, in the first and second movements, extraordinarily refreshing. In contrast, the slow third movement was a languorous bath of limpid sound. The performance seemed to dare the musicians to hang on for a wild ride, and of course they did.
And then came the monumental final movement, the musical prize that everyone was waiting for.
Absence of logic
It is possible to render a great performance of this hugely complex construction and still maintain a sense of discovery. This was the remarkable achievement of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. But doing so requires some degree of figuring out how to put the pieces together. That is where Nézet-Séguin fell short.
The choral movement is a sui generis collection of varied sections, each displaying a different character and different tempos. Relating the pieces one to another gives the music structure and unity. Nézet-Séguin’s reading continued the anxious energy that he conjured for the earlier movements, but a sense of logic about the music was elusive.
He was, musically, leaping off of a series of cliffs. Exciting, yes, but at the expense of a more fulfilling view of Beethoven.
And yet the concert’s entire first half was a serene calm before a storm— including, appropriately enough, a sweetly gentle rendition of the seldom performed Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a late period cantata by Beethoven. Then came a premiere of an orchestration of Nico Muhly’s Bright Mass with Canons, a kind of post-minimalist homage to sacred choral music. The performance glowed with lush color.
Traditionally, at least in Philadelphia, the Orchestra’s music director has played the role of the artistic chairman, delegating the oddball jobs to guest artists. Not this guy. Even for a staple like the Beethoven Ninth, Nézet-Séguin adopted an approach that seemed almost experimental.
Even as I disagreed with the ultimate results, I found myself delighted by the process, and the anticipation for the continued growth of his vision. This orchestra hasn’t had a music director of such imagination and ambition since Stokowski.♦
To read another review by Tom Purdom, click here.