Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO / Nézet-Séguin @ Royal Festival Hall, London

24 October 2009

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

Since assuming the role of the LPO’s Principal Guest Conductor a year ago, Yannick Nézet-Séguin has become been a regular visitor to the British capital. Although still only 34, the dynamic Canadian has no hesitation in taking on the greatest challenges of the orchestral repertoire, in this case Bruckner’s monumental Eighth Symphony. Tonight’s concert also included the world premiere of Incantations: Concerto for percussion and orchestra, a new work by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Like many composers of his generation, Rautavaara, who turned 81 earlier this month, originally used twelve note and experimental techniques early in his career, but later adopted a more neo-romantic style. His Cantus arcticus (1972), for recorded birdsong and orchestra, set the seal on a compositional approach which combines melodic approachability with profound mysticism, perhaps best heard in his Seventh Symphony (Angel of Light).

Incantations, a joint commission from the LPO plus three other orchestras, was written for the percussionist Colin Currie, who was on hand for this inaugural performance. Lined up in front of Currie was an impressive array of percussion instruments, including marimba, vibraphone, tubular bells, crotales, cymbals and a variety of drums. Opening with a tragic and slightly discordant sounding theme for the orchestra, the concerto was memorable for the rarefied, luminous nature of the slow movement as well as the improvised cadenza of the finale. This saw Currie deftly moving between instruments, maintaining the mood and feel of Rautavaara’s writing, before the orchestra returned to conclude the work with an affirmative variation on the opening theme. Incantations may not have the sense of purpose of similar recent works for percussion by Aho or Tr but stands as a distinctive addition to Rautavaara’s oeuvre.

Although Bruckner’s symphonies are often associated with the great conductors of yesteryear, especially Karajan, Giulini and Wand, a generation of younger musicians are blazing a trail in this repertoire, including Daniel Harding, Simone Young and Paavo Järvi. In this performance of the Eighth Symphony, in the Haas edition, Nézet-Séguin presided over an interpretation which was notable for its long-breathed, patient exposition, steady tempos and structural coherence. The Adagio alone lasted over 29 minutes. Another distinctive feature was the rich, almost saturated sound that Nézet-Séguin drew from the orchestra, not to mention the ethereally beautiful string sonorities of the Adagio’s coda.

What I missed in this account, however, was the sense of spiritual fervour found in the greatest performances of the symphony. And although Nézet-Séguin delivered glowing climaxes and brought a visceral energy to the more martial aspects of the finale, tension was not always sustained at a constant level. The symphony’s coda was impressively sculpted but did not quite deliver the all-encompassing culmination that Bruckner surely intended.

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