London Philharmonic/Nézet-Séguin – Ein deutsches Requiem

Mendelssohn, completed Marcello Bufalini
Piano Concerto in E minor [London premiere]
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Roberto Prosseda (piano)

Elizabeth Watts (soprano) & Stéphane Degout (baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Yannick Nézet-SéguinFelix Mendelssohn was working on a third piano concerto when he died in 1847, leaving just the opening bars fully scored, with completed first sketches of the solo part for the first and second movements and some melodic first drafts for the finale. It is these fragments that form the basis of the Mendelssohn scholar Marcello Bufalini’s completed version that was performed at this concert. As far as versions go, with so little of the orchestration completed, Bufalini’s completion is bound to be conjectural at best. This is definitely not a ‘performing version’ – there just is not enough original material. Given that, Bufalini has created a very attractive work, full of the bravura and brilliance that one expects of a 19th-century romantic piano concerto, with lots of familiar question-and-answer rhetoric between soloist and orchestra and bundles of finger-bending virtuosity.

Neither of Mendelssohn’s piano concertos have much of the bite and soul of the later symphonies, the piano trios, the anguished late chamber music and the E minor Violin Concerto. They are pleasant and elegantly crafted, with plenty of dazzling display and thrilling passagework, and this ‘new’ concerto is very much in the same vein, played here with conviction and panache by Roberto Prosseda. At the end of the first movement, there is a suggestion of that characteristic Mendelssohnian febrile nervousness, and the Andante is truly enchanting, but in general the music is not a masterpiece that has been excavated and saved for posterity.

The more I hear from Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the more impressive he becomes. He has the ability to illuminate Brahms’s “Ein deutsches Requiem”, its characteristically generous scoring glowed with subtle and non-clotted colours, and his elastic phrasing made the music extraordinarily alive. Each of the seven movements evolved from something quite straightforward into structures of great weight and complexity, yet Nézet-Séguin had a symphonic overview of the work that was immensely satisfying. Nézet-Séguin, conducting from memory, got to the heart of this amazingly personal, consolatory and optimistic work, one that references the great choral works of Bach and Beethoven and gets near to complete withdrawal of hope in the grandly funereal ’For all flesh is as grass’ but on the whole offers a seraphic acceptance of death rather than regretful valediction.

The London Philharmonic played magnificently, with a wonderfully veiled string sound and some heartbreakingly eloquent woodwind playing. The soloists (replacing Barbara Bonney and Teddy Tahu Rhodes) were Elizabeth Watts, radiant in ‘And ye now therefore have sorrow’, and Stéphane Degout, an assertive, apocalyptic presence in the huge ’For here have we no continuing city’. But it was the London Philharmonic Choir that really took the honours, singing with incredible involvement, responsiveness and variety of tonal range, producing walls of pianissimos that almost dipped out of audibility, and closing with the most comforting ‘Blessed are the dead’ I have heard.

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