Philadelphia Orchestra shows itself at home in Viennese program

Fri Jan 15, 2016 at 3:03 pm
Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Thursday night at Carnegie Hall.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Thursday night at Carnegie Hall.

For their second Carnegie Hall appearance of the season, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra brought a peculiar program taken directly from a three-part “Music of Vienna” series that they are presenting back home on South Broad Street. From another orchestra and another conductor, this set, lacking a real orchestral warhorse, might have seemed too light for an out-of-town mainstage visit, but in the end, the commitment and polish of theplaying made this odd concert one of the most rewarding of the season thus far.

What proved in the end to be a Strauss Jr. sandwich began with an immortal chestnut, the Tales from the Vienna Woods waltz. The only blemish on the orchestra’s playing from the entire night came in the form of a slight discombobulation in the very opening bars of this piece. Otherwise, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians showed a keen understanding of and strong affinity for the Viennese style, crafting subtle curves in the music and relishing the warmth of their sound.

On paper, at least, the heftiest piece on the program was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. This was the Carnegie Hall debut of Jan Lisiecki, the young Canadian pianist. Of his technical facility there can be no question: his passagework was cleaner than I’ve heard than in any other performance of this concerto in New York.

His phrasing, too, was both intelligent and elegant, simple but profound. One might have wished for a little more color, more warmth to his sound, which was overly direct—a few sections of straightly played counterpoint sounded as though they had come out of a Bach fugue. When the left hand carried the melody, Lisiecki had a tendency to let it swallow up the accompaniment in his right, muddling his voicing. Only in moments—the soft, warm light of the opening statement and a brief duet with an oboe in the Rondo—did we hear flashes of real finesse.

His encore, Schumann’s “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen, was sublime, delicately and lovingly played. Lisiecki is but twenty years old; it will be exciting to watch him develop further.

The orchestra sounded absolutely marvelous throughout the concerto, from the gentle glow of the Allegro to the lean, muscular Rondo. Their sharp, booming strokes in the second movement seemed to shake the floor of the hall.

Transcribing a quartet for orchestra is, of course, bound to lose some of the piece’s intimacy, taking what was written for a chamber ensemble of single instruments and playing it instead with a full complement of strings. In much of Beethoven’s late quartet writing, however, there is enough flesh to withstand the transformation, and Mahler’s arrangement of the Op. 95 quartet, “Serioso,” is a perfect example.

In this form, the quartet is a different creature, and, to his credit, Nézet-Séguin allowed the opening bars to become a fierce display of power rather than trying to cling to the more focused intensity of the original. The beaming, lyrical strains of the Allegretto (in this performance, somewhere between an andante and an adagio) and the fierce snarls of the Allegro assai vivace showed the superb sonic precision of which this orchestra is now capable. The players are sounding more finely tuned and responsive than ever, and Nézet-Séguin is a wizard on the podium, knowing exactly which levers to pull for maximum effect.

The listed program began with Strauss Jr., and so it ended, after a fashion, with HK Gruber’s Charivari, “an Austrian Journal for Orchestra” inspired by Strauss’s Perpetuum mobile. Viennese it certainly is, with its relentless polka feel, but it’s more than a little reminiscent of An American in Paris, as well, with its sense of light-hearted, free-wheeling whimsy and slatherings of jazzy tonality. One can imagine Gene Kelly dancing down the street to this piece without much trouble. A deconstructed waltz in the middle offers a little psychological challenge, but at its core this is a thoroughly playful piece, and the orchestra performed it with glee.

For comparison, they offered the Perpetuum mobile itself as an encore, and it was absolutely exquisite: romping and silly in character, showing quick, ball-of-feet changes and gurgling energy. Every joke in the music landed so naturally, it was as though they’d all been thought up on the spot. As the piece came full-circle and began again from the top, Nézet-Séguin, baton still flicking, turned to the audience with a wry smile and quipped, “Life goes on” before dismissing his players with a wave.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra return to Carnegie Hall on January 26, performing Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 (“Drumroll”) and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 (“Romantic”). carnegiehall.org.

Eric C. Simpson is associate editor of The New Criterion.


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