The Proms’ love affair with Wagner continued apace as the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under its charismatic music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, presented an intriguing Russo-German programme that included Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. The Proms is celebrating the bicentenary with performances of seven of his operas, so including this song cycle makes total sense, especially given its thematic links to Tristan und Isolde.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a hugely popular presence on the podium in London, so it came as no surprise that the Royal Albert Hall was filled to capacity for this eagerly-anticipated Prom. Casting the Italian diva, Anna Caterina Antonacci as the soloist for the Wesendonck Lieder appeared inspired on paper, but in reality her performance could best be described as idiosyncratic. There were some glorious moments when she toned down the vocal line to a whisper, especially in the first song, ‘Der Engel’, but at times it became apparent that she was trying too hard not to sing out at full pelt. It also took a while to adjust to the sound of a soprano with such a big voice essaying a work that is usually associated with Wagnerian mezzos, but it can be done – most notably by Dame Anne Evans here in the mid-’90s, yet Antonacci never fully seemed at ease. When she wasn’t glued to the music, she had a watchful eye on the conductor at all times, indeed the most impressive aspect of this performance was the glorious accompaniment provided by Nézet-Séguin and his players.
To open the concert he had given a lush, slightly brass-heavy interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Maybe Nézet-Séguin was trying to stamp his interpretation too heavy-handedly on this evergreen work, as parts seemed too fussy, but overall the sheen and iridescent textures that he drew from the orchestra were impressive.
The best was most definitely saved until last when Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra gave a blistering account of one the 20th Century’s most innovative symphonies, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major. All the lyrical moments were deftly handled, whilst the dramatic range from barely perceptible pianissimo playing to the opposite end of the spectrum with five percussionists giving it their all was breathtaking. In particular the Scherzo had colossal guts and drive. There was some superb woodwind playing, and the dark undercurrents of Prokofiev’s score were brilliantly realised. This is the kind of repertoire in which Nézet-Séguin excels, and there was a sense of total commitment from all sections of the orchestra. A coruscating encore, Shostakovitch’s Folk Festival from The Gadfly more than made up for the slightly disappointing first half and confirmed the special rapport that Nézet-Séguin enjoys with his Dutch orchestra.
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