Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Nicholas Angelich (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 19 January, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The toned young (35) French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin continues to cut a swathe through the global orchestral ‘village’ – next year he takes up the directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra – and his appearances, as Principal Guest Conductor, with the London Philharmonic have produced some remarkable performances, although this Beethoven and Mahler concert didn’t quite gel.
Nézet-Séguin knew exactly what he wanted from the ‘Emperor’ in terms of orchestral weight and more generally of the music’s role in expanding into the bigger canvas of the romantic concerto. But he didn’t take his soloist, the American Nicholas Angelich, with him. I recalled Angelich’s rather unyielding performance of the Diabelli Variations at Wigmore Hall a year or so ago, and, in a concerto with a gift of an opening for the soloist, his scene-setting introduction sounded perfunctory and surprisingly inauspicious. This first impression lingered, not helped by some foursquare phrasing and blustering rhetoric with the orchestra. Also, the piano sound, bright but thin, took some getting used to – indeed, some of the audience didn’t get used to it, to judge from overheard remarks during the interval. The slow movement was much more of a joint effort, and a finely judged link to the finale and the movement itself went some way to reminding us of the concerto’s big-hearted rather than poker-faced grandeur. Angelich’s Bach encore hit the spot in terms of grace and communication.
The jury’s still out, as far as I’m concerned, as to which of two Mahler symphonies is the more difficult to bring off – the Fifth or the Seventh, and on the strength of this concert, the Fifth is currently in the lead. Nézet-Séguin has shown a particular rapport with the late-romantic symphonic repertoire – his LPO performances of Bruckner’s Seventh and Eighth were seriously good – but Mahler 5 eluded him, which it has many conductors. As it happened, the opening Funeral March, so different from the heroic rites of the ‘Resurrection’, more human-scale and subjective went well, catching Mahler’s swirling mood changes and with a long-sighted overview that completely folded the second movement into its powerful narrative. There just wasn’t enough change of tone (sometimes quite hectoring) and direction in the scherzo to differentiate it from the first part. It also had the effect of stranding the Adagietto, so that you wondered what relationship this lovely movement bore to the symphony as a whole. It is more that a juxtaposition of contrasts, played up by the driving energy of Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, which suited the explosive, life-affirming finale brilliantly. The LPO was on fabulously high-octane form in terms of response, colour and mood.
Mahlerians all have their particular agendas for the symphonies. It’s fine, wonderful even, when a particular performance either completely fits or completely re-wires this agenda, which was not the case here, alas.