Prom 53: Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin, Royal Albert Hall (Review)

Posted on August 23rd, 2013

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2013With 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
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Posted in Classical Music, Reviews
3 comments on “Prom 53: Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin, Royal Albert Hall (Review)
  1. Brian Easter says:

    Like you I was very disappointed with Anna Caterina Antonacci’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. It thought it might have been interesting to hear her in a German song cycle, as you say out of her comfort zone but she seemed to be very nervous at the beginning and didn’t really improve thereafter.

    I don’t share your enthusiasm for the performance of the Prokofiev 5th. I felt whatever legacy of Russian playing Gergiev left with the Rotterdam orchestra has been wiped clean by Nézet-Séguin. Impressive playing but something missing, but then I believe the best Prokofiev conducting comes from Russian or Russian-trained conductors (Karajan being a notable exception)

  2. Roddy Tutti says:

    Once again, I largely agree with you. The Wagner was as near to murder in the Albert Hall as it is possible to be, after dodgy tuning and ensemble in the Romeo and Juliet curtain raiser. Antonacci was totally miscast for Wagner, and she neither knew the piece well enough nor how to perform it. But she shouldn’t be singing it even if she did. Her voice did carry as far as the cheap seats where I was sitting, but with all the thin piercing timbre of an old witch.

    I was both attracted and repelled by N-Seguin’s dramatic over emoting, and had written him off in my mind at half time. However, I thought the Prokofiev was stunning – all of it, but especially the 2nd and last movements. I heard this orchestra about 10 years ago but remember it sounding rather classier than last night, notwithstanding the sizzling 5th as you say.

  3. David Nice says:

    Having watched the Prokofiev again on the iPlayer, I must disagree with Roddy Tutti about YNS’s ‘dramatic over emoting’. There is nothing but sincerity in everything he does, at least as I see it, and it’s a wonderful combination of galvanizing with every little detail writ large on his wonderfully expressive face. And I’ll say it again – this was absolutely the best Prokofiev 5 I’ve ever experienced in a concert hall. YNS grasps its depths as well as its surface. The little interview proves that.

    But why did Katie Derham have to bring up the fact that he’s known as ‘Mighty Mouse’ to his friends? Would she like to be called ‘Big Jugs’ on air? German pronunciation needs work. Usually I like her.

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