Philadelphia Orchestra, Moser deliver electrifying Beethoven and Shostakovich
They’ve been talking about “Yannick’s Eroica” quite a bit in Philadelphia—it’s also Beethoven’s “Eroica,” of course, but Beethoven’s work can withstand a good deal of interpreting, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electric and eccentric interpretation proved irresistible Friday night.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s third concert of the season at Carnegie Hall was constructed around Beethoven’s Third, the second half of a weighty program that included almost two hours of music. Nézet-Séguin rarely does anything halfway, and his “Eroica” was no exception. His tempi were almost break-neck: The playbill listed the symphony’s length at around fifty minutes, but this performance clocked in closer to forty.
The first movement began with a burst of energy that never seemed to dissipate. Even though the strings drop down dynamically with their rocking figure, there was a constant sense of excitement that bubbled up to the top in moments of glittering commotion. Nézet-Séguin was not subtle with his dynamic choices, but he did not need to be. His range brought out the extremes of what is in fact a piece full of contrasts that keep the electricity flowing.
The second movement retained some of that electricity, perhaps too much. It was slower, certainly, but didn’t feel any more settled even in its sober beginning, as though the music were constantly trying to break out of a cage. The third movement began with a hum of anticipation, hinting at the fortissimo explosion that was coming, but making it no less effective when it finally landed.
Only once did things come close to getting out of hand: The opening salvos of the finale were haphazard, but the orchestra quickly settled into the clock-like rhythm of the variations. As elsewhere, there was nothing small about this performance. There were moments of elegance, but for the most part it was a breathtakingly huge reading, driving relentlessly forward to a thrilling finish.
The “Eroica,” of course, is famously quoted in Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, which opened the concert. The second movement’s somber march theme serves as the basis for Strauss’s twenty-three string work, and is even quoted directly at the end. At times taking on the scope and dimensions of a chamber piece, Metamorphosen is a prime chance for the renowned Philly strings to show off.
Show off they did: As ever, they brought warm, burnished tone to bear, but what was most impressive was the unity with which they played. There is some doubling here and there, but in general the twenty-three musicians play with twenty-three voices, each a spirit. Beyond simply maintaining impeccable ensemble, under Nézet-Séguin’s direction they displayed a singularity of purpose that was remarkable.
Most of the usual Straussian elements were present: The musicians seemed to pulse with one another, voices spilling over lines, each growing out of the last.
What was missing was heaviness—Strauss wrote the piece in 1945, as intensified Allied bombing campaigns were destroying Germany’s historic cities, and there is an oppressive sadness in the music. Philadlephia’s playing was lighter than it could have been, sounding more nostalgic than morose.
Rounding out the first half was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, which was first recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra, though with Eugene Ormandy, and Msitslav Rostropovich: some very big shoes to fill.
Speaking of shoe-filling, the Norwegian cello star Truls Mørk was sidelined by a skiing accident, and was replaced on Friday by the thirty-four-year-old Tchaikovsky Competition laureate Johannes Moser. This concerto is a beast of a piece, and the authority and conviction with which Moser played it were nothing short of spectacular.
His intonation wasn’t perfect, but who cares? The tradeoff was a performance of irresistible intensity. Moser played with a wide range of colors, and often with a tone that some might describe as “ugly,” but his gritty, gutty playing brought out the ferocity of the first and last movements. From the very first statement of the first movement’s puckish theme, Moser took control. In his rough articulation one could hear the slightly mean-spirited, snarky playfulness that characterizes so much of Shostakovich’s writing.
The second movement began more dreamy than it might have, but Moser conveyed extraordinary understanding. At times he took a firm hand in shaping the movement’s lines, while at others he simply let the music speak for itself, as in his ghostly, eerily vacant harmonic passages.
The third movement, an extended cadenza for the cello solo, includes a wailing strain reminiscent of that “Marcia funebre” theme from the “Eroica.” Moser’s playing was darkly poetic, making the music feel cavernous with his deliberate pace, and letting out rich, mellow grumbles on the C-string.
The orchestra was terrifying in the finale, the winds playing the opening theme with shrill intensity, and the percussion stomping out its maddening interruptions. Moser’s playing was furious—there were missed notes, and in one spot the passagework seemed to be almost faked, but the arc of the piece was absolutely spot-on. When it started, he was bouncing restlessly in his chair during his rests, itching to get back into the fray, and by the end of it, there was a sense that he was fighting through overwhelming exhaustion.
The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall on May 2 with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, and Bartok’s First Violin Concerto, performed by Lisa Batiashvili. carnegiehall.org
Eric C. Simpson is the Hilton Kramer Fellow at The New Criterion