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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Concert Review: The Three Other B's

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Barber, Bartók and Bruckner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
On Friday night, the Philadelphians closed out this year's Carnegie Hall series with a concert featuring music by the "other" three B's: Samuel Barber, Béla Bartók and Anton Bruckner. These three very different compositions formed an effective tryptich, giving indications at the state of the orchestra, as music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin wraps up his second season at the controls.

Barber's Adagio for Strings is an orchestra transcription, built from the slow movement of the young composer's Op. 11 String Quartet and championed in the concert hall by none other than Arturo Toscanini. Played at the announcements of the deaths of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, this music re-entered the national conscience in 1986 when it served as the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Vietnam War drama Platoon.

Under Mr. Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphians used the broad span of the Adagio to show the rich, lush string sound that this orchestra is famous for. With the first violins leading off and the cellos placed in the front, the five-sectioned string ensemble ran a wide gamut of emotions in the course of a very slow performance. Working without a baton, Mr. Nézet-Séguin seemed to scoop the sound from the air, urging accents and phrases with a gesture and glance. So far, so good.

The orchestra was then joined by violinist Lisa Biatashvili for a Bártok rarity: the Violin Concerto No. 1. Written early in the composer's career as a love letter for violinist Steffi Geyer, this two-movement work is more of rhapsody than a concerto, shot through with the late Romanticismthat the young composer was soon to expunge from his music) (In fact following the messy end of his relationship with Ms. Geyer, the composer shelved this concerto--it was premiered 50 years after its composition and a full thirteen years after Bartók's death.)

Ms. Biatashvili and Mr. Nézet-Séguin delved enthusiastically into the first movement, a slow, lush Andante that shows the solo instrument under a flattering spotlight. The Allegro that follows contrasts contrasts energetic dance rhythms for orchestra and soloist with Bartók's more typical love of Hungarian folk song. The second movement starts as a  Ms. Biatashvili tackled the movements with bright, singing tone, reveling in the variations and games on the final children's song that brings this concerto to a brilliant close.

Bruckner died while working on the finale of his Ninth and final symphony. Instead of choosing one of the currently available completions, Mr. Nézet-Séguin opted for the standard practice of playing the three that were completed by the composer himself.. Conceived on the largest imaginable scale, this symphony presents cosmic difficulties for the unwary conductor. Mr. Nézet-Séguin chose a very measured, broad approach to the big architectural spans of the first movement: flying buttresses of strings that support the cathedral arches of the big brass choir climaxes.

The finest moment of this movement came in its late pages. A lonesome minor-key solo in the horn that made one imagine the perpetually penitent composer, working away at his desk in a race against his own illness to finish the work. That solo was followed by a massive tutti for the strings and brass, perhaps an evocation of the heavenly reward that this Catholic composer sought. The sense of self-recrimination and guilt was also present in the Scherzo, as pounding rhythms gave way to a trio played with nostalgia.

It was in the finale that this otherwise strong performance ran into trouble. Conceived on a wide canvas, this long, slow finale can have inexorable power, leading the listener gradually to three quotations in its closing bars: themes from the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the tolling bells of Wagner's Parsifal. Although Mr. Nézet-Séguin (working now with a baton but conducting from memory) put the notes in the correct places, the finale missed the epic sweep and perfect logic that steers the listener through Bruckner's final completed thoughts. That said, the final pages were played with great beauty, with the Philadelphian first violins laying this turbulent work to rest.

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