London Philharmonic/Nézet-Séguin [Mozart K364 & Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde]

Sinfonia concertante in E flat for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K364
Das Lied von der Erde

Stefan Jackiw (violin) & Richard Yongjae O’Neill (viola)

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Toby Spence (tenor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ©Pierre DuryNeither of these supreme masterpieces quite reached this exalted status despite good things. Initially the Mozart promised much, the orchestral introduction (the soloists joining in) being lissom, purposeful, dynamic and incident-packed. Upcoming youngsters Stefan Jackiw and Richard Yongjae O’Neill entered as one (displaying a rapport that would last the performance) and beguilingly. But it soon became evident that the violist wasn’t projecting enough and that his meagre tone would consistently lose out to the brighter sound and vibrancy of the violinist. Equally miscalculated was Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s tempo, which, although bracing to begin with, later compromised the music’s breathing space and made the violist seem harried. Such muscular orchestral playing (although the horns didn’t always survive their exposure), directed by the hyper Nézet-Séguin, overruled finer sensibilities. This was an Allegro devoid of its ‘maestoso’ qualification. Similarly, the finale, however deftly played, wasn’t as shapely as ideal, O’Neill going off the rails for a few bars near the end. Yet the slow movement was sublime – eloquent and poignant – played raptly by all concerned.

Despite much excellent playing, Mahler’s song-cycle symphony “The Song of the Earth” never quite got under the skin as it can do. The opening of ‘Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery’ was less than arresting (rather soft-grained). Although Toby Spence displayed ardour and heroism, and seems to have found some steel to offset his attractive plangent timbre, there was a lack of hysteria and burden, something emphasised by the orchestral contribution, lucidly sounded (enough to suggest that Nézet-Séguin could be a master of Schumann’s symphonies), but without the anxious clout Mahler surely intended. There was subtle detailing too in ‘The Lonely One in Autumn’, which introduced Sarah Connolly, openly expressive and regretful.

Experience and memory are crucial to reacting to the latest performance of a particular work: impossible then to forget the New York recording of Bruno Walter (who conducted the posthumous premiere of “Das Lied von der Erde” in 1911), which seems so ‘right’ in its accentuations and progressions, or the sear and suspense of Leonard Bernstein’s Vienna taping. Nearer in time is Bernard Haitink’s conducting of the work with the LSO in October 2009. Soberly and with minimal gestures the Dutchman penetrated into the long final-movement ‘Farewell’ and made it an unnerving even schizophrenic experience. Nézet-Séguin – following a ‘Youth’ movement that was hassled, a ‘Beauty’ short of violence when horses trample all before them (the music rushed rather than biting), and with a lack of abandon for ‘The Drunkard in Spring’ – never quite conjured the psychodrama that the ‘Abschied’ is. He can manipulate music and he can live its every note, but enlightenment and involving the listener is not always within his gift. This is music on the edge, but it was away from the precipice on this occasion. There were superb individual contributions from members of the orchestra – Jaime Martín’s spellbinding flute, Ian Hardwick negotiating the oboe’s Baroque patterns with poise, and Susanne Beer’s cello spoke volumes – with Connolly a dignified and rapturous seeker and renewer; she’s a great artist. The long silence before applause was meaningful, but there are extremities to this music that were lost to smoothness and self-conscious manoeuvring.

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