London Philharmonic/Nézet-Séguin – Franck’s Symphony & Fauré’s Requiem

Symphony in D minor
Requiem, Op.48

Sally Matthews (soprano) & Gerald Finley (baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 22 January, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ©Pierre DuryPoised to take over the music directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin has risen very far very fast since he first wowed London Philharmonic audiences. For me his most distinctive performances remain those in which he eschews the fast and fashionably authentic to give us readings of a dedicated deliberation unheard since the twilight years of his revered teacher, Carlo Maria Giulini. Indeed our editor remembers the great man tackling this very programme in the same order in this very hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1980s.

There are essentially two ways of dealing with (Belgian-born) César Franck’s only Symphony, once omnipresent if nowadays a comparative rarity, perhaps because so many performers get bogged down in its organ-like textures. Where the likes of Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch fairly hurtled through it, crisply objective, Giulini preferred to take his time. It was intriguing to see which way his French-Canadian sometime-acolyte would jump. In the event Nézet-Séguin, who conducted without a score (and must know the work well), failed to impose much in the way of emotional logic on its stop-start structure. There were some attractively light and bright textures but the acoustic was particularly unkind, inhibiting much in the way of blend with the brass projecting into an isolated pocket of dead air. Tempos seemed randomly imposed, the work at once shapeless and low-key. The volcano failed to erupt.

More rehearsal time must have been allocated to Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem” because the realisation was in a different league. The conventional orchestral layout of part one was abandoned too with violas repositioned hard right and a magnificent complement of eight double basses lined up horizontally at the back of the stage. In a hushed interpretation like this, the piece becomes wholly meditative, remote from any kind of worldly context, Gallic or not. The composer might not have approved of the pacing but that should not detain us unduly. For those in the audience not bedecked with noise-making bangles or racked by TB or bronchitis, thoughts must have turned not to the merits of the variant editions but to memories of the same performers’ Brahms “A German Requiem” in April 2009. Was this similarly rapt account (no doubt somnambulistic to some) being considered for immortalisation on the orchestra’s in-house label? It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Gerald Finley. Photograph: Sim Canetty ClarkeThere was no mistaking the painstaking preparation even if not every detail was immaculately turned on the night. The choir was on fine form, it having presumably been decreed that diction mattered less than accurate pitching and a quest for the widest dynamic range. Interesting too for Londoners to hear a real in-situ organ in this work; occasional problems of co-ordination with Catherine Edwards’s instrument may or may not have had something to do with its currently and famously incomplete state. Remarkably distinguished soloists had been engaged and in line with the overall conception they did not over-project: there was no trace of Gerald Finley’s Iago voice and Sally Matthews wore a suitably muted frock. By the end of the evening even this audience, a reassuringly big one, had begun to settle. Cynics might claim that the more sickly attendees had simply fallen asleep.

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