Yannick, Philadelphians stumble in Beethoven 4 and 6 at Carnegie

Thu Oct 21, 2021 at 1:36 pm
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Hans van der Woerd

Between the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performances of Beethoven’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin spoke to the audience from the podium, noting that Beethoven’s symphonies, so comfortably familiar today, unsettled audiences at their premieres.

Performing them now, he said, the question was, “How can we, the Philadelphia Orchestra, unsettle you?”

The answers came all too soon: Wind playing so sloppy it wouldn’t pass muster in your high school orchestra.

Balances so out of whack that one frequently had to use one’s “familiarity” with the piece to fill in what couldn’t be heard.

Rhythms so sprung that one began to wonder if this group really could count to three.

Wearing out Beethoven’s “sudden fortissimo” joke in the first movement of the first piece, then continuing to tell it for the rest of the evening.

If the maestro’s goal was an unsettling evening of music, he achieved it. But not in the way he intended.

Except for the concert’s opening measures. The Adagio introduction to the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, which no doubt disoriented Beethoven’s listeners with its harmonic groping in the dark, here became the kind of frozen landscape, with long silences and bits of melody lying around in pieces, that Anton Webern could be proud of. A little exaggerated, but it made its point.

And let’s give credit to the 2021 edition of the vaunted “Philadelphia sound.”  When everybody was pulling the oars at the same time in the climaxes, this group could fill the house as few others can.

More often, though, that stageful of musicians was a drag on the music. Orchestras this large don’t have to sound too big, but on Wednesday, this one did. Soft, gooey wind and string attacks contributed to the overall feeling of heaviness. It seemed much of the time as though Nézet-Séguin was trying to steer a supertanker through whitewater rapids.

For the most part, he challenged the orchestra with very fast tempos, as if forcing them to dance. In spite of getting around their instruments quite ably, the orchestra’s two left feet were much in evidence.

So, when the Fourth’s mysterious Adagio brightened into Allegro vivace, the orchestra couldn’t lighten up, and “vivace” turned into “vehement.”  The wind solos that typically spark the action were late, blurred, or covered up.

The second movement, also Adagio, proved a high-water mark for the winds, who took up the main theme glowingly on their own, before the murky strings and horns engulfed them.

The vigorous Scherzo, with the twice-repeated trio featuring woodwinds, had plenty of energy trying to break through the general sluggishness. A long-short rhythm in three is hard to get exactly right; the winds in the trio didn’t come close.

Although the finale is marked Allegro ma non troppo, most performances, including this one, treat it as a virtuoso showpiece in blazing 16th notes for the strings (including double basses!), and at one point a lone bassoon. The 16ths sometimes blurred in the fast tempo of this spirited rendering, but at other times they sparkled, or hummed cheerfully under a snatch of melody.

Like many other Beethoven codas, the one in this movement teases softly, then ends with a bang. After a performance studded with sudden fortissimos, Nézet-Séguin backed off this last one, ending the piece with a fillip, barely forte. Unsettling, indeed.

As for the “Pastoral” Symphony, just because the composer felt relaxed in the countryside doesn’t mean an orchestra should be similarly relaxed about playing in time. On Wednesday, the persistent rhythmic figures that lift the music along were treated casually, causing it to go out of focus. In less rhythmic passages, however, the Philadelphians’ lush sound successfully conveyed the sensual pleasures of country air and scenery.

The sound alchemy of the second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” depends on following Beethoven’s recipe in the right amounts. To achieve its ravishing effect, this dish needed a spoonful more of the watery murmur of low strings, less of the long reinforcing horn notes, and a violin melody floating like a cloud in a country sky. Here in particular, one found oneself relying on memory to supply the missing elements.

The third movement’s “merry gathering” had plenty of enthusiasm, and the horns lustily sounded their hunting call, but its effect was blunted once again by casual wind playing and rhythm.

The orchestra fired off its pyrotechnics in the “Thunderstorm” movement, but the striving for extreme contrast led to nearly-inaudible rain in the violins and thunderclaps that were more painfully loud than grand.

The swinging 6/8 rhythm of the closing “Shepherd’s Song” sounded disjointed at first. Eventually, however, sustained forte passages pulled everybody together, swelling to a fine apotheosis near the end—a last-minute rescue for an evening of frustrating music-making.

The Philadelphia Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1, 7, and 8, and Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers 8 p.m. Nov. 9. carnegiehall.org; 212-247-7800.

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