Yannick Nézet-Séguin continues to surprise and reassure in equal measure – surprise, because he brings such an element of freshness to his work; reassure, because he and, here, the London Philharmonic were so thoroughly prepared. Also, his programmes may seem to offer the familiar, but Beethoven’s Second isn’t the most frequently heard of the symphonies, and Rossini’s Stabat Mater isn’t too often encountered in a concert.
The charge coming off Nézet-Séguin’s conducting is now taken for granted, and is not so amazing for someone in his thirties. But put it in the context of the spaciousness and generosity of his approach, of the fact that his players are being encouraged rather than being airlessly micro-managed, and of his natural, keen sense of rhythm and pulse, and you get some idea of his astonishingly complete musicianship.
The Beethoven was a blast of energy, and brilliantly played. Less vivid performances can still refer this symphony back to Haydn and Mozart; this one sounded like Beethoven, fully formed, projecting those bold elements that would so inspire and intimidate the next generation. If anything, Nézet-Séguin may have overplayed the intensity of the questing, moody slow introduction, with the result that the Allegro sounded manically upbeat. There was plenty of bucolic colour in the charming slow movement, here a harbinger of ‘Pastoral’ delights to come. He conducted the scherzo’s explosive rhythms with an impressive muscularity, drawing out fiercely taut playing, and the finale was polished to within an inch of its life, an immensely satisfying blend of cohesion and momentum. The LPO searched out an incredible range of detail and variegation, which made the performance as a whole especially thrilling.
The Stabat Mater was the only major work Rossini wrote between his retirement from opera and the so-called “Sins of Old Age”, the main transgressor being the Petite Messe Solennelle. The text for the Stabat Mater, in which the Virgin Mary contemplates her crucified son, is, even by Roman Catholic standards, luridly emotional, and like Verdi in his Messa da Requiem, Rossini’s setting declares its allegiance to theatre and church in a way that complements both – in this respect, it’s rather touching how some of the sections have a ’serious‘ devotional orchestral introduction then subverted by some perky vocal numbers, demonstrating, if you ever doubted it, that the Catholic church is no stranger to drama. In the same way that there can be nothing more life-enhancing than a really stirring Requiem, so there is no Lent so penitential that it cannot be livened up by a jolly Stabat Mater.
Nézet-Séguin was completely at home with this, balancing the mixture of styles with flowing elegance, and drawing an authentic Rossinian sound from the LPO, with the London Philharmonic Choir delivering the thoroughly rehearsed goods in terms of dynamic range, precision and clarity. Antonio Pappano’s recent recording (EMI) has a more southern sense of heart-on-sleeve melodrama, the sort of Italian style that can make a rosary-clicking drama out of anything. If this LPO performance didn’t quite get this, it was mainly down to the soloists and some applied rather than lived-in bel canto
singing. The Korean tenor Ji-Min Park needed a shade more ingratiating sweetness for his great big-tune solo ’Cujus animam’. His voice has plenty of penetration and volume, with a lyrical, serenading quality, but not so much of the brand of emotionalism that bursts, sometimes sobs, out of the music. The Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura had no problems with power, a few with pitch and definition, and a pleasingly pathetic, theatrical involvement. The Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose, though, was right inside the music, producing an exciting, solid, idiomatic sound of considerable colour and contrast. The English bass Matthew Rose was on great form; he gives a special presence to everything he does, his words were vividly enhanced, and he was superb in the ‘Eja, Mater’ section with the unaccompanied choir, both producing singing of high quality.