Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Seguin in New York – La valse & Shostakovich 5 – Leonidas Kavakos plays Szymanowski

La valse – poème chorégraphique
Violin Concerto No.2, Op.61
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 17 January, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ©Pierre DuryThis season Montreal-born Yannick Nézet-Séguin began his tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He bobs and weaves in a way that recalls Georg Solti, darting intently at his players to make their entrance all the more pointed or making a sweeping gesture to bring out the linearity of a phrase. Although his tempos can be forcefully energetic, he tends to take his time when too much speed would disaffect the music’s character, of which he has command and brings out inner parts that are often passed over. Occasional affectations crop up but they only reveal a young conductor’s intention to express the music as he feels it.

In La valse, Nézet-Séguin underscored Ravel’s brutal treatment of the Viennese waltz by forcing the violent interruptions during the opening section’s veiled sonorities to sound rigidly angular. As the work proceeded, Nézet-Séguin energized the tempo, driving the music forward impetuously and forcefully toward a ravaging of the waltz at the close, maniacal and a terrifying bestial orgy.

Leonidas Kavakos. Photograph: Yannis BourniasLeonidas Kavakos then played Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto. Simpler in form than the First, the Second consists of two parts tied together by an elaborate cadenza. The first part begins with a hauntingly beautiful violin solo after which the allegro section has overtones of Polish folk music. The second part features a folksy march spiced with occasional dissonances that link it to the soulful expressivity of the first part. Kavakos’s performance merged purity of tone, unfailing technical skill and a thorough understanding of Szymanowski’s idiom; his treatment of the cadenza was mesmerizing.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony suits Nézet-Séguin’s temperament, giving him an opportunity to impress with his intense drive and rhapsodic sensibilities. The Philadelphians played extremely well, for the most part: string sound recalled the glory days under Stokowski and Ormandy; woodwinds sounded vibrant and expressive, particularly from oboist Richard Woodham and flutist Jeffrey Khaner; brass was generally effective, but sometimes lacked sufficient power. From the strong, assertive opening to the heavily-underlined tread at the end, Nézet-Séguin drove home every aspect of this stirring work with potent force, and moments of hushed serenity were aptly over-laden with a disturbing touch of sinister disaffection.

After a strong entrance in lower strings to begin the scherzo, Nézet-Séguin set a moderate tempo that worked until he over-romanticized the trio section and forced the reprise of the scherzo to race frenetically to the close. Most effective was the Largo, a long-lined management of the main theme perfectly in character, enhanced by sensitive strings and haunting woodwind solos. When the terror of the antagonist appears toward the middle of the movement, Nézet-Séguin played up the drama with seething intensity. At first, the main tempo of the finale – Allegro non troppo – was properly temperate yet still had sufficient energy to stir the soul. It did not really need to be fortified with the excessive speed then impressed upon it. At the reprise of the first subject, woodwinds seemed somewhat cautious and could not be heard clearly. Toward the end, the brass did not give Nézet-Séguin all that he apparently wanted, but the march trod to strengthen the powerful effect of the dramatic conclusion.

Reservations notwithstanding, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra should make beautiful music together for some time.

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