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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Concert Review: The End is the Beginning

The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin. 
Photo by Philippe Jasmin © L'Orchestre Métropolitain.
On Friday night, the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall for the second time this month. For this concert, they brought an ambitious old-school program of Richard Strauss, Shostakovich and Beethoven. This old-school offering allowed ample opportunity to display the conducting skills of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director who is rapidly putting his own stamp on this venerable orchestra. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, it was a rich, satisfying meal.

The evening started with Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen, the autumnal composition written as an epitaph to both World War II and the classical and Romantic traditions that came to an end in the middle of the 20th century. It is written for 23 solo string players, whose intertwining lines (laced with many quotations from both Strauss' own work and composers that came before) weave a rich fabric of sound. It is a work that stands unique toward the end of the long Strauss catalogue, belonging to his rich autumnal last decade.

For this performance, the Philadelphia violins and violas elected to play standing up, creating a rich balance of sound. Mr. Nézet-Séguin brought out the clarity and richness of this score, and top-flight playing from all the players captured the power and grief of this score. The themes wound and unwound themselves from instrument to instrument, soloist to soloist as each of these top-caliber string players were allowed to express themselves individually while forming a key component of the coherent whole. In the final minutes, a solemn, funereal three-note figure from the basses quoted Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, the work that would later end this evening.

First though, it was time for Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, written by the composer for his friend Mtsislav Rostropovich in 1959. Chronologically, this concerto comes between the Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies, two patriotic works chronicling the genesis of the Bolshevik revolution. Since Shostakovich found himself (somewhat) in favor with Soviet authorities, he made this a personal, and subversive work, loaded with humorous references to the composer himself (a four-note motto theme is a transposition of the "D-S-C-H" that makes up the composer's initials in German notation) and the same electric tension that infuses those two "revolutionary" symphonies.

Johannes Moser was a late substitute for the cellist Truls Mørk, who suffered a shoulder injury in a skiing accident. However, this lanky soloist rose to the challenge, giving a tough, gutsy performance that, while less than note-perfect, captured the fighting spirit of this music in a bold, admirable way. From the first slashing attack at the motto theme through the long solo cadenza that comprises the entire third movement of the piece, Mr. Moser held his audience rapt with bold slashing chords and a guttural, sometimes hesitant voice that suited the emotional content of the work.

Like most late Shostakovich works, this concerto contains pitfalls for the unwary conductor. Mr. Nézet-Séguin met the cerebral challenges of the long-form first movement before unleashing the passion of the second movement, a funeral march marked Moderato in the score. The twisted, lurching Russian folk-dance in the finale was attacked with enthusiasm by Mr. Nézet-Séguin, as he urged Mr. Moser into the final solo phrases. The last movement boiled and simmered before exploding in fireworks for orchestra and soloist.

For better or worse, the Eroica is one of those symphonies that is so ubiquitous that it can serve as a meter for a conductor's qualities. Mr. Nézet-Séguin opted for a dramatic reading that varied in tempi but thrilled the listener. He charged the opening of the Allegro, exhorting muscular chords from his cellists in the first movement's development and recaptulation. The Funeral March was under a heavy weight, dragging and shuffling through to its end, which almost seemed to disintegrate. The Scherzo was marred by unattractive horn playing in the trio section, but this might have been intentional. The final set of Theme and Variations had a brisk, Mozartean quality in it opening, which gave way to the familiar earth-shaking strides in the symphony's last pages.

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