One of the most eagerly anticipated proms of the season was the appearance of the dynamic young Canadian conductor Yannick Nzet-Sguin with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is music director. Given his electric performances with the LPO over the last few seasons, Nzet-Sguin has rightly become a favourite with London audiences so it came as no surprise that the Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters for this, his second conducting engagement at the Proms, the first being an unforgettable evening of Stravinsky and Mendelssohn with the SCO last year.
The evening began with a magisterial reading of Wagner’s Tannhuser overture – the sonorous theme which opens the work was played with wonderful warmth and gravitas by the trombone section, whilst there was an iridescence to the strings which gave the whole interpretation a wonderful sense of clarity.
Simon Keenlyside was the expressive soloist in an introspective performance of Mahler’s Rckert-Lieder. He brought a wide range of tonal colour to the songs, took a few risks with some judiciously placed mezza-voce phrases at the top of his range which didn’t always pay off and at times had difficulty being heard above the orchestra. Out of all the songs ‘Um Mitternacht’ was the most successful where Keenlyside’s burnished baritone properly came into focus and he brought due resignation to the closing lines of the final song ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world)’ “Ich leb’allein in meinem himmel, In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied I live alone in my heaven, In my loving, in my song”.
After the interval we were treated to a headlong, vivacious performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, ‘Eroica’. Anyone present at Nzet-Sguin’s superlative performance of the Seventh with the LPO in April can confirm that Nzet-Sguin has a special affinity with Beethoven, so expectations ran high for this performance of the ‘Eroica’. All the hallmarks of this conductor’s particular approach to the composer were evident faultless balance between the sections of the orchestra, minimum vibrato in the strings and a wide dynamic range that allowed the strings to almost whisper the start of the third movement. The overall effect was thrilling and whilst there was due solemnity in the second movement, the fourth was taken at a suitably breakneck pace. All sections of the Rotterdam Philharmonic responded with warm, accurate and impassioned playing. For an encore Nzet-Sguin coaxed some sensuous sounds from the orchestra as they gave a glowing account of the ‘Fairy Garden’ from Ravel’s Mother Goose suite. An unforgettable evening.