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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.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Concert Review: Upside Down, But Under Control

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Upstairs at the Kimmel Center: Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The Philadelphia Orchestra.
The standard concert order (overture, then concerto, followed by symphony) was turned on its head on Friday night as the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned to Carnegie Hall for a program of Brahms, Haydn and Richard Strauss. Although this was a conservative, even mundane program, the high quality of execution by the Philly players made for compelling listening.

Brahms' Third Symphony appears so frequently on concert programs that one rarely has the pleasure of hearing it well played. Here, Mr. Nézet-Séguin took a vigorous approach, letting the mysterious chords and upward interval of the first movement make their own statement. From there, low strings and woodwinds led a compelling exploration of this expansive sonata form, accentuated by brisk rolls on the timpani and stern chords from the brass.

That interval at the start of the first movement is Brahms' principal building block for what follows, appearing again and again in the Andante. Following the compositional practices of Bach, Brahms turns the phrase forward, backward and even upside down, examining the idea from different angles and creating new light from each turning facet.. This meticulous exploration of a simple idea also allows the composer to spin compelling melodies, played dolcissimi in the lilting slow movement.

The finale had a subtle beginning, with the main thematic idea rising out of the strings, creating a height for a dizzy descent to emerge in the brass. The rich, warm tone of the strings was answered by the wind, players cued vigorously by the swift-moving Mr. Nézet-Séguin. Precise and at the same time emotionally compelling, the last pages (with its faint echo of the opening interval played once more) brought this work to a contemplative close.

If the Brahms is overplayed, the Haydn Cello Concerto in C Major is the reverse, having lain neglected on a library shelf in Bohemia until 1961. This concerto, written early in Haydn's development as the court composer for the Esterházy family, ignores the rigors of classical form. in favor of a structure reminiscent of works from the late baroque period. Its three movements ask the cellist (in this case Jean-Guihen Queyras) to play as part of the tutti in addition to their solo part, creating a very different dynamic between lead instrument and the responding orchestra.

In the expansive and lovely cadenzas, Mr. Queyras reminded the listener of his instrument's uncanny ability to imitate the human voice, and of Haydn's (now-ignored) abilities as an opera composer. The cello's solo melody was answered by a small but engaging tutti, slightly re-orchestrated with additional strings and double bass playing the continuo part normally supplied by a harpsichord. Following the merry sprint of the last movement, Mr. Queyras then pleased the audience with a soft and lyric encore: the slow movement from Bach's Cello Suite No. 4.

The full force of the Philadelphia Orchestra arrived onstage for the finale: Richard Strauss' Suite constructed from his opera Der Rosenkavalier. Philadelphia has been playing good Strauss lately, with concert readings of Elektra (in 2011) and Salome earlier this year getting royal treatment. The appearance of this Suite on a concert program makes one wonder if Mr. Nézet-Séguin is planning to mount this comedy next.

Here, the jutting theme that represents the title character crossed swords with the sighing, descending figure for the Marschallin, in a rich palette of sensual orchestral detail that, if not carefully led can verge into the lurid. Mr. Nézet-Séguin summoned a clarity of texture for the Presentation of the Rose, with high, divided strings and glockenspiel giving this ordinary event a sense of the unworldly. The big "Mit mir" waltz was broad-shouldered and merry, and the final ensemble was accented with the right touch of melancholy. 

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