With the imminent release of a scorching account of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra set the bar very high (too high?) for their Prom curtain-raiser – Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture “Romeo and Juliet”. The opening of this piece is a nightmare of woodwind chording and tuning and whilst the quality of plainchant was atmospherically invoked the process of warming up or, in this hall, cooling down made for some unexpected imprecisions. More surprising was an absolute howler in the trombones later in the piece. Not at all sure what went wrong there.
So an edginess, an uneasiness, pervaded this performance slightly overshadowing lovely details like the sudden hush before the first altercation between Montagues and Capulets – the tension between romance and strife was suitably poised on a rapier blade – and the emergence of the love theme in nocturnal colours – violas and cor anglais – only Tchaikovsky could have imagined. One of Nézet-Séguin’s most engaging traits is his way with articulation – not a note passes as insignificant, everything has shape and precision. That alone brought the drama off the page but it was far from the orchestra at its best.
What followed was, it pains me to say, a disaster. As a big fan of Anna Caterina Antonacci I was intrigued to experience her somewhat out of her Italian and French comfort zone in Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder. These songs are, after all, precursors to one of the greatest dramas ever conceived for the stage and Antonacci is nothing if not a highly-strung theatrical animal. It might have helped, of course, if she’d really known the songs, but to have this most intuitive of singers poised behind a music stand was an immediate barrier to communication with her audience – which in turn might have helped disguise the fact that her voice is not best suited to this music (lacking that essential purity in “Der Engel” and “Träume”), that her German was dodgy, and that those long-breathed Wagnerian phrase lengths completely eluded her. It was as if the music had frayed with age – unfocused and short-winded.
What a relief, then, to report on an absolutely sizzling account of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. What Nézet-Séguin brought to this piece was a wonderfully spontaneous fluidity, ever responsive to the tiny shifts of pulse in the first movement which combined songfulness with an epic reach. The great ice-breaking climax here was ferociously impressive, the Rotterdam brass regaining their power and poise, the strings their darkest saturation.
I loved the suaveness of that pink Cadillac of a trio in the scherzo while the shot-silk fabric of the slow movement duly brought a return of Verona’s star-crossed lovers in those exquisitely pained dissonances. What a cry from the heart in the climax, too.
The Rotterdam woodwinds were a terrifically spry chorus of disapproval throughout scherzo and finale but one of their number – the first clarinet, Julien Hervé – was a feline star with a touch of Gershwin in his soul. And that amazing coda, like a dog chasing its own tail, brought clockwork percussion (let’s hear it for the wood-block) and Red Army brass to a cheer-worthy pay-off.
Nice, too, that the encore – “Folk Festival” from Shostakovich’s The Gadfly (with its tantalising burst of Festival Overture in its tail) – brought Prokofiev’s great compatriot to the party.
Photo: Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2013
Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou