Nezet-Seguin and Beethoven take Manhattan

Posted: August 08, 2012

NEW YORK - From the looks of the video billboards lining 65th Street here, Yannick Nézet-Séguin might as well have been running for office, so relentlessly did his picture flash between advertisements for War Horse and other Lincoln Center events last weekend.

The occasion was a series of appearances at the Mostly Mozart Festival in which the music director designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra alternated between two ensembles in programs that not only were substantial but also contained repertoire that could have been a problem - or even an Achilles' heel.

Thursday's all-Beethoven concert with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at Alice Tully Hall had the Violin Concerto Op. 61 with Lisa Batiashvili and the Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), in performances that projected the sort of strong, consistent viewpoint lacking in Nézet-Séguin's previous outings with the works.

Ubiquitous Manhattan blogger Paul J. Pelkonen (super-conductor.blogspot.com) admitted slight embarrassment at the extravagance of his own review, which said, "This was epic Beethoven: a performance that attendees can annoy their friends by bragging about it a decade from now."

I agree, but what did that mean in terms of sound? Why did that happen this time?

Nézet-Séguin's Virgin-label recording of the concerto, with Renaud Capucon and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, was attentive and did all the right things but had no special originality. His Rotterdam Eroica recording established that his Beethoven priorities favored not a long sweeping line but individual events packed into the same piece - events that did not comfortably coexist, with tempo changes requiring painful gear shifts.

The difference Thursday had much to do with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe's historically informed performance tendencies: Smaller, less vibrato-laden sonorities allowed nimble leaps from lamentation to fist-shaking during the course of the piece. That's where the epic quality came from: So many events made so many vivid points without having their individuality suppressed by a tidy big picture that the symphony seems to cover more varied ground than performances striving for suavity.

During the Violin Concerto, Nézet-Séguin was perhaps influenced by Arturo Toscanini recordings with a combination of heat and speed, but allowing the music to breathe and expand in ways Toscanini did not always allow. Batiashvili left no question about why she is considered one of her generation's finest violinists. Still, I have the questionable fortune to have recently heard a broadcast of the piece played by James Ehnes, who projected an aggressive nobility so attuned to the concerto's personality that I'm temporarily unable to love any alternative.

The Friday program with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall was far less safe mainly because the basic repertoire needed a certain covert salvaging. Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 isn't nearly as articulate as the composer's later orchestral works. But like any sympathetic interpreter, Nézet-Séguin was respectfully interventionist, even if he told the symphony what it was trying to say rather than asking - and did so with conviction that silenced any contrary views.

Haydn's Missa in Angustiis ("Nelson Mass" ) isn't as problematic as some of his other late-period masses: Though they're all brimming with the composer's most matured ingenuity in handling the large-scale forces of chorus, a quartet of soloists and orchestra, the Latin text often seems along for the ride. Written in 1798, when Lord Horatio Nelson defeated Napoleon's naval fleet, this Mass has appealingly explosive moments that only tangentially reflect the words being sung.

Nézet-Séguin's highly italicized performance was full of convincing moments, as one might expect with the capable Concert Chorale of New York and a luxurious vocal quartet that included popular British tenor Toby Spence. One such moment was the Benedictus' rhythmically emphatic, high-anxiety buildup to a climax suggesting the Second Coming. Even so, there was no way it was going to be the audience success of the Eroica, which left hardened New Yorkers beside themselves.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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