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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Concert Review: The Return of Mr. Incredible

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (finally) conducts at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
Image © Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.
The arrival and installation of Quebec-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra has been one of the most important stories in concert music this decade. This exciting young conductor has shouldered the burden of transiting this venerable organization out of bankruptcy while providing fresh energy and innovative programming to keep the lights lit on Broad Street. However, a strike by Carnegie Hall stage hands nixed this year's opening gala concert, and an illness in December forced Michael Tilson Thomas to serve as a last-minute replacement.

That all changed Monday night. Even as New York was swaddled in a record snowfall, conductor and orchestra made it to 57th and Seventh to offer a program of Smetana's The Moldau, Bartók's Third Piano Concerto (with soloist Radu Lupu) and the Sixth Symphony of Antonín Dvořák. This was conservative programming to be sure, the kind of evening that pleases the most conservative concert-goer in the middle of a busy season.

The Moldau is Bedrich Smetana's best-known work, a surging portrait of the Vltava River that flows out of the mountains of Bohemia and down a set of rapids before rushing into the waterways of Prague. Mr. Nézet-Séguin used the remarkable forces at his command to deliver a slightly mannered performance that relied on the beauties of the score to make their own statement. The first rivulets appeared in the woodwinds, followed by the swell and rush of violins and cellos as the notes poured out of the orchestra. In the "rapids" section, the players mounted a thrilling wave of sound, surging into the recapitulation of the main theme before dwindling to silence.

Béla Bartók wrote the Third Piano Concerto in 1945, as a piece for his wife Ditta Pásztory-Bartók's career as a soloist. The Hungarian composer, living in a difficult exile in New York City, wrote the piece even as he battled the leukemia that took his life that same year. (In fact, the  orchestration of the last 17 bars was left incomplete by Bartók at the time of his death. The work was completed by the violist and music teacher Tibor Serley.) In this work, the piano part sounds easier than it actually is, and Radu Lupu met its technical challenges with a fluid, assured performance.

A veteran of the concert stage who is regularly heard in New York, Mr. Lupu is a familiar figure to those who know piano music. Here, his disciplined, focused artistry lacked the surge of passion that one associates with a truly memorable performance, but there was no arguing with the poetic thrust of the solo part in the first movement or the subtle joys of the central Adagio. In this slow movement, piano was sensitively accompanied by Mr. Nézet-Séguin, who worked closely with the soloist while keeping his orchestra on a tight dynamic rein.

The performance came to life in the finale, with Mr. Lupu displaying his formidable technique against the black velvet of Mr. Nézet-Séguin's accompaniment. Those final bars were taken at great speed, resulting in some untidy notes but producing a dazzling overall effect--a triumph of flash over substance in the last, crashing chords. The audience loved it.

The concert ended with Dvořák's Sixth, a work that represents the transition between that composer's early obscurity and his national fame as the voice of his country. However, despite its power and Brahmsian sense of structure and melody, this is a work that has been unfairly ignored by conductors and orchestras, who prefer the more familiar strains of the Seventh, Eighth or Ninth.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin used the rich sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with its focus on the admirable cello section, to good effect in the first movement. Dvořák's lyricism and formal command were on clear display, as the formal melodic subjects unwound and developed. The recapitulation was tremendous in its impact, a climactic moment delivered with style and panache.  The second movement was the best of the four, establishing a firm middle ground between the late innovations of Beethoven and the ideas of "Russian Five" composers like Mussorgsky and Borodin. The Adagio starts as a quiet conversation between three instruments (flute, oboe, and violin) before building up to a thunderous peal of tolling bell-chords, a surprisingly fierce sound.

The hard-charging dance movement was thrillingly played, with Mr. Nézet-Séguin exhorting and leading his players in the fiery Czech rhythms. Following this climax, the final movement was something of a let-down, a formal and carefully presented final argument that, in a fashion typical of this composer, recapitulates the musical ideas of the symphony, bringing the last chords in a powerful blaze of orchestral color.

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