Symphony No.4 in B-flat, Op.60
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 20 October, 2021
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Nineteen months ago, Carnegie Hall and the Philadelphia Orchestra were set to launch a cycle of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies to commemorate the composer’s 250th-anniversary. But on March 13, 2020, the day the first concert was scheduled to be performed, the COVID-19 pandemic closed everything. As a belated birthday gift, in August 2021 the original program for the Hall’s return from the shutdown was changed and a complete Beethoven cycle with the Philadelphians and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin was added to the 2021-2022 season. On October 6, opening night, the series got off to a blazing start with a performance of the Fifth Symphony.
Unlike the other programs in this series which juxtaposes Beethoven with contemporary compositions, this evening’s fare was all-Beethoven. This concert opened with a radiant rendition of the Fourth Symphony. Nézet-Séguin and his musicians made a strong case for more frequent outings of this work. It is often said that the even-numbered Symphonies represent a gentler, softer side of their creator. Robert Schumann famously described this piece as “a Greek maiden between two Norse giants”, referring of course to the two colossal works flanking it. It is nonetheless a work of spectacular strength and sparkle, qualities brought to the forefront in this memorable performance.
Nézet-Séguin’s reading was at once vigorous, dramatic and highly refined. Speeds were generally on the fast side, but the dark, intense mystery of the slow opening was hypnotic, as it pulled the listener in, leading to a purposeful Allegro. The Adagio movement was elegant and ethereal rather than easygoing, and a high point for the ensemble’s ever-graceful winds, who took up the main theme radiantly. The Scherzo was full of exuberance, and the Finale burst with energy and fire.
An intense and alert account of the ‘Pastoral‘ followed, with the Philadelphians’ remarkably lush sound vibrantly conveying the sensual pleasures of bucolic scenery and life. The performance was most notable for the appropriately rustic quality of the woodwind solos, particularly in the first movement and the third-movement Scherzo (‘Merry Gathering of Country Folk’), and the wonderfully lithe and flowing quality of the second-movement ‘Scene by the Brook’. The ‘Thunderstorm’ erupted dramatically and the heartfelt ‘Shepherd’s Song’ delivered an effusive apotheosis and brought the evening to a joyful end.