London Philharmonic/Nézet-Séguin Herbert Schuch

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No 6 in D, Op.60

Herbert Schuch (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (born in Montreal in 1975) seems to have come from nowhere (albeit following a year of training with Carlo Maria Giulini) to copious plaudits. Appointed seven years ago to Orchestre Métropolitan du Grand Montréal (with which he has recorded symphonies by Bruckner, Mahler and Saint-Saëns and discs of Nino Rota and Kurt Weill for ATMA Classique), Nézet-Séguin has recently been announced as Valery Gergiev’s successor at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, his tenure to begin with the 2008-9 season. This LPO concert may well have been Nézet-Séguin’s London debut. He left his mark!

Although Debussy’s ‘Faune’ seemed slightly incongruous with the rest of the concert (if intriguingly contemporaneous with the Dvořák symphony, the latter completed in 1880, ‘Faune’ first heard in 1894) – and affording the two harpists and the two percussionists (the latter needed only for a few strokes of sound courtesy of antique cymbals) to be off home fifteen minutes after the concert’s start! – it received a compelling performance, which was launched by Celia Chambers’s flute solo. Nézet-Séguin is not someone to be listened to with one’s eyes; his gestures are demonstrative, he lives every note, yet the ears heard a refined if sensuous account, very suggestive in its light-breeze rustling, fluid phrasing, a suggestion of drama under the surface, and eroticism at the generously moulded but not indulged climax. This strongly atmospheric performance – with rich-sounding harp flourishes and very sensitive solo strings, vividly detailed yet appropriately ‘hazy’, and with enough emotional ‘distance’ to retain the music’s intangibility – could not have been a more impressive ‘introduction’ to this conductor.

Nézet-Séguin is also an alert accompanist, very much ‘with’ Herbert Schuch’s interesting if not always convincing way with Beethoven’s poetic Fourth Piano Concerto. Schuch, winner of the 2005 London International Piano Competition, has a gratifyingly light touch, a revealing use of dynamics, and is a fine example of being a musician who is a ‘first among equals’. Time and again he withdrew in order to ‘accompany’ the orchestra while Nézet-Séguin elicited woodwind details usually submerged by either the soloist or the strings. Yet such accommodation on behalf of the soloist might also suggest a lack of personality, a probably unfair view for Schuch’s discrimination was a pleasure in itself, as was his pearly sound and fleet fingers (a down-up scale-passage in the finale stood out for its sheer finesse).

Yet the performance rather palled after the first movement, which, following an eloquent if subdued opening solo from Schuch, took an expansive (20-minute) course that slowed further at the most rarefied moments, a just-got-away-with stratagem that culminated in a quixotic account of the more-often-played of Beethoven’s two cadenzas. However, the confrontational slow movement lacked gravitas, the clipped string phrases being more ‘historically informed’ than opening up a ‘relevant’ dramatic scenario; only Schuch’s ‘angry’ crescendo on a long trill as the movement reached its conclusion stays in the memory. The finale, moderately paced, lacked wit and, by now, continued marked slowing for lyrical episodes became rather too predictable. Nézet-Séguin insisted on bringing out each trumpet note with marked emphasis, which became irritating (yet Simon Carrington’s timpani-playing was rather reticent). This was, nevertheless, especially in the first movement, a reading that made one listen and think.

Nézet-Séguin has keen ears (he seems to like highlighting the violas’ lines); if he hears something not quite as it should be (or as he wishes) he pounces on it with a technical acumen that puts things right – cliché: ‘he knows what he wants and how to get it’. One also senses that Nézet-Séguin likes to leave something in reserve for the concert itself; he has the ability to make things happen on the night, and the members of the LPO certainly seemed to be hanging on his every gesture. Sometimes he let the brass be a bit too loud and, equally-sometimes, he picked out secondary material and brought it to the foreground to the detriment of ‘principal voices’; but, for the most part, Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony was vibrant and alive in the most positive way. It was also, across the first three movements, rather too intense, with shaping and detail revealed in such a way as to suggest that Dvořák was a rather more contrived composer than is usually the case; here his ‘airborne’ melodies lacked naturalness. The first movement (and not just because Nézet-Séguin eschewed the first movement’s exposition repeat, which, in fairness, the composer seems to have had second thoughts about) seemed somehow foreshortened, although the lilt of the opening bars was delightful, and although the conductor suggested Dvořák’s music is emotionally deep-rooted, he also rather imposed upon it.

The slow movement, led by Leila Ward’s cor anglais plaintive solo, exhibited both soul and volatility, while the scherzo was just a little too emphasised for the freewheeling sense of dance required; the trio though, featuring an expressive and glinting piccolo soliloquy from Stewart McIlwham, had a related flow which avoided stasis. With the finale, Nézet-Séguin relaxed his shoulders and wrists; there came with this something of the Bohemian outdoors (the opening paragraph a radiant introduction, and perfectly returned to later in the movement), an infectious swing informed the music, pointed rhythms sparkled and there was a drive that was inexorable rather than hard-driven.

The concert was recorded by the LPO for its own label (without, as yet, any plans for a release, it seems) – but this is surely a sign that this very pro-active conductor will be returning to London before long.

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