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Friday, August 3, 2012

Concert Review: The Gifts of Prometheus

Yannick Nézet-Séguin brings Beethoven to Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Chris Alonso.
On Thursday night, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe gave the first of two Mostly Mozart concerts this year under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The fiery young Québécois (who is about to start his first season as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra) led energetic accounts of two Beethoven war-horses: the Violin Concerto (with soloist Lisa Biatishvili) and the Eroica Symphony.

Both pieces (staged on the modest, acoustically crisp stage of Alice Tully Hall) were exceptionally well played by this fine London ensemble, which recorded the complete symphonies 20 years ago under period specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The modest orchestra has some instrumental quirks: small copper-kettle timpanis and a penchant for slide trumpets. This was epic Beethoven: a performance that attendees can annoy their friends (by bragging about) it a decade from now.

The Violin Concerto came first, with the carefully thought out phrases of the long orchestral introduction setting the table for the meal of Ms. Batiashvili's solo part. She played this long opening movement in close dialogue with Mr. Nézet-Séguin, interweaving the lyric line with the orchestra as the tutti instruments commented and embellished her playing.

The meditative second movement was profound and powerful, showing the influence of this lone concerto on the final trio of symphonies. The final movement, with its giddy peasant rondo, allowed opportunities for virtuosic display, gorgeous floods of tone from Ms. Batiashvili's instrument, and the sculpting of a golden sound-world that the audience did not want to exit for a mere intermission.

It is a testament to Beethoven's breadth of vision and Mr. Nézet-Séguin's considerable skill that the much-traveled Eroica sounded exciting and fresh. In this performance, it was as if the ink on the parchment were still wet. Favoring brisk tempos Mr. Nézet-Séguin accentuated the rough dissonances in the score, aided by the Chamber Orchestra's unique instrumental choices.

This was the heroic Beethoven, full of life and vitality but unafraid to destroy the symphonic form in order to re-create it in his own image. The opening movement contrasted nimbly with the funeral march that followed. This famous movement had an almost Mahlerian weight (despite the small orchestra) as Mr. Nézet-Séguin distilled the raw vitality written into the score.

The whirling third movement was a powerful return to life, with the horns joining the dance in the trio section. This rumbustuous dance movement--itself responsible for the popularity of the scherzo as a symphonic form in the 19th century, was set-up for the grand finale.

Here, Beethoven's set of variations (which have their roots in his ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus) resounded with good humor and a thirst for understanding of the great forces unleashed by the development of the plucked main theme. One only needed to look at the grins on the faces of the trumpeters as the strings worked out the complex fugue to know that joy had been distilled from paper and notes, and that this exceptional orchestra and conductor had created something marvelous.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.