Incantations: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra [World premiere]
Symphony No.8 in C minor [Revised Version of 1890, edited Robert Haas]
Colin Currie (percussion)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 24 October, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Recently made Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and currently in a Principal Guest role with the London Philharmonic, French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been raising his profile accordingly. His Bruckner has attracted most attention (he and the LPO gave the Seventh earlier this year), and no-one could accuse this Eighth Symphony as other than a notable statement of intent.
Admittedly tension in the first two movements ran relatively low. Not that these were necessarily unfocused or even provisional; indeed, the first movement, neither overly portentous nor headlong in manner, was unerringly well paced – with only a lack of gravitas in the development’s central climax and in that prior to the desolate coda to confirm that Nézet-Séguin’s traversal is very much one in progress. Similarly, the scherzo – bracing but never unduly hectic – was finely done, even though its return after the trio could have had additional cumulative momentum (without which, the rallentando in its closing bars sounded merely hopeful) while the trio section sounded – as it so often does – more an interpolated interlude than an integral phase of Bruckner’s grandest and most all-encompassing such movement.
Come the Adagio, however, and Nézet-Séguin, without consciously changing emphasis, intensified his ongoing conception. The movement’s overall trajectory, unfolding in waves of deliberate motion whose underlying tonal progress is far more elemental than the mere contrast between themes, faltered only in the approach to the main climax (cymbals and triangle rightly subsumed within the texture) – which admittedly needs the unyielding concentration of a Karajan or Wand, or expressive license of a Giulini fully to cohere – but the gradual ebbing away of intensity in the coda was eloquently rendered.
While the finale was not quite so fine (ensemble was on occasion less than unanimous and intonation, notably with the Wagner tubas, similarly faltered), then Nézet-Séguin still saw the movement whole – above all, by ensuring the recurrences of the majestic opening theme were always made the tonal and expressive crux of an argument that is circuitous but never less than cohesive. Even if, at times in the extended development and in the run-up to the crowning apotheosis, his tempo modifications might have threatened to throw the movement off-kilter, the outcome was never seriously in doubt.
Overall, this was not an ‘achieved’ performance such as London has been fortunate in having of this work on several occasions over the past quarter-century, but it was one that conveyed more than a mere sounding of notes in time. Inasmuch as interpretation matters, Nézét-Seguin is to be applauded.
87 minutes of Bruckner made the first half feel more distant than it might otherwise have been, but the premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Incantations was a pleasing event if hardly an occasion. Its three movements deftly alternate sections of contrasting motion within an overall fast-slow-fast format, and if the ‘motto’ theme avoided bathos only through typically luminous orchestration, the elegance of Colin Currie’s marimba playing – not to mention his scintillating cadenza prior to the close – helped maintain interest in this never less than enjoyable product of its composer’s Indian summer.