Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO / Nézet-Séguin @ Royal Festival Hall, London

11 February 2009

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

At the beginning of the this season, Yannick Nézet-Séguin not only became Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra but also became Principal Guest Conductor of the LPO. This concert demonstrated his credentials in the music of two Austrian greats, Haydn and Bruckner.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, and with 104 symphonies and over 30 concertos in the composer’s oeuvre, performers wishing to commemorate the event are somewhat spoilt for choice. This concert brought the opportunity to hear his Cello Concerto in C, a work which was considered lost until a copy of the score was found in the National Museum in Prague in 1961.

Throughout the performance, cellist Truls Mørk seemed to inhabit the score, visibly absorbing the orchestral introduction and responding with playing of style and lyricism. The Adagio communicated grace and refinement while the concluding Allegro molto brought a superbly articulated sense of zest. Nézet-Séguin, conducting a small ensemble of around 35 players, provided an energetic and sympathetic accompaniment, rhythmically alert with dynamic contrasts carefully observed.

Although Nézet-Séguin’s French Canadian origins are a long way from Upper Austria, he clearly has a feeling for the music of Bruckner, having already recorded two of the symphonies for ATMA-Classique and here conducting the Seventh Symphony entirely from memory. This was a long breathed and carefully thought through performance, Nézet-Séguin’s communicating his intentions to the orchestra as much as his body language as with his baton.

In the first two movements, the most impressive aspects of Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation were his control of sonority, his command of transitions and his ability to build and sustain climaxes. With the Nowak score being used for this performance, the climax of the Adagio saw the debatable inclusion of the cymbal crash and triangle roll (probably originating with the conductor Nikisch), but for once these embellishments seemed appropriate, so convincing was Nézet-Séguin’s handling at this point.

At other times, however, the conductor’s emphasis on spacious tempi and refined textures served to demonstrate Bruckner’s mastery of orchestration but allowed tension to ebb away. The serenity and mystery inherent in the first two movements wasn’t always communicated, and even the close of the Adagio (a eulogy to the memory of Wagner) wasn’t as moving as it could be.

The last two movements of the Seventh Symphony can sometimes seem an anticlimax, but were here a highlight. The Scherzo in particular conveyed a sense of physical power, as if mountains were dancing, while the finale was imbued with energy, richness and grandeur. The brass were splendid here, rich toned and powerfully expressive (principal trumpet Paul Beniston notably red faced with exertion by the end).

Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by this performance of the Seventh Symphony, Nézet-Séguin is undoubtedly a Bruckner conductor of vision and the London Philharmonic play well for him. I look forward to hearing more of his work.

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