Could it have gone better even in one's dreams? Not mine. I'd been enjoying a just-released disc on the Wigmore Hall Live label by the much-discussed young soprano Christiane Karg, thinking I'd have to wait years for a chance to hear her live. Then I discovered she's the soprano soloist in Mahler's final movement. Luxury casting indeed, thanks to Nézet-Séguin's opera career.
As a Mahler interpreter, Nézet-Séguin has burgeoned. His 2004 Montreal recording of the Symphony No. 4 is the primary fodder for his detractors - a slowish rookie performance with safe interpretive choices. On Friday, he seemed to have gone to the other extreme with freewheeling tempo and dynamics changes. Yet a mere glance at the score reveals that steady-tempo Mahler performances ignore the composer's every-few-bars markings that give the piece intense light and shade.
In seasons past, Christoph Eschenbach's Mahler 4th was similarly observant but tightly managed. By contrast, Nézet-Séguin's had playful fantasy with a nightmarish edge. His approach took a few minutes to settle in, given the first movement's more wind-heavy palette and aggressive incidental solos. Concertmaster David Kim's second-movement folk fiddle solos were phrased with intentional eccentricity. Notes glided into one another - referencing portamento techniques common in Mahler's time. Climaxes were enormous, such as when the gates of heaven open in the third movement.
Then came soprano Karg with a voice reminiscent of the late Lucia Popp and fine German diction projecting the text's childlike vision of heaven, but with adult insights. The final notes had an unusually long, quiet buzz into the ether, but that's just what the score asks for.
The Strauss concerto, a pleasant, unambitious post-retirement piece, arose from the more-is-more school of concertos, made even harder to sustain by its restrained orchestration. Woodhams went beyond his customary artistry with a special, confiding quality in his soft playing.
The Britten variations, with their dissection of orchestral possibilities, felt as coloristically alluring as Ravel, though the independent-minded components don't interlock nearly so neatly. Nézet-Séguin kept a firm hold of the underlying logic while the orchestra played the daylights out of the piece.