Vienna Philharmonic wraps Carnegie stand with emotion-rich Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky

Mon Feb 28, 2022 at 1:31 pm
By Rick Perdian
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned to Carnegie Hall for  the third concert with selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique.” The first concert featuring the music of Rachmaninoff had been a celebration of melody and the second, with works by Debussy, Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov, a feast of orchestral color. In the final concert, the focus was on drama, not all of which came from the music itself.

There was never any doubt of the rapport between conductor and orchestra in the prior two concerts, even if there could have been little preparation on behalf of Nézet-Séguin. He had led the Philadelphia Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony earlier in the week and was in final rehearsals for the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever performances of the five-act original French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, which opens Monday night. There were times, especially, in the first program, when the orchestra exerted its will, but in Sunday’s concert, conductor and orchestra were as one.

The choice of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet resonated in ways that no one could have imagined when these concerts were originally planned. It was not only the tragic tale of two young people that cast a somber pall, but also that of Prokofiev himself, a story undoubtedly known to every musician on stage and many in the audience.

Ill at ease in either the US or Western Europe, Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union in 1938. His death 15 years later went unmarked, as he died less than an hour before the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose apparatchiks had declared him an enemy of the state. The Russian invasion of Ukraine contains vestiges of those sinister times that still persist to this day.

There was plenty of sonic splendor in this Romeo and Juliet: the massive jabs of sound depicting the feuding Montagues and the Capulets and the brilliant blare of the brass were among them. It was, however, the softer, more poignant moments with their delicate orchestral colors that defined it. The sound of the violin paired with the celeste and the moving flute and cello solos were absolutely lovely. Nézet-Séguin was overcome with emotion, as were many others, after the final scene at Juliet’s grave.

Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director, violinist Daniel Froschauer, chairman of the board of the Vienna Philharmonic, and Nézet-Séguin appeared on stage at the close of the intermission. Froschauer requested a moment of silence be observed in support for the people of Ukraine at the conclusion of the Tchaikovsky. The only one to speak, Froschauer said that the orchestra, Carnegie Hall and Nézet-Séguin were unified in their opposition to violence, aggression and war. The three men then walked offstage to an ovation from the audience.

As if one cathartic experience was not enough, Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic provided yet another, of even greater emotional impact with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. Tchaikovsky declared that he had put his whole soul into the symphony, which has been deemed as a musical evocation of despair. The composer’s sudden death at the age of 53, just nine days after conducting the symphony’s premiere in St. Petersburg in 1893, only added to the work’s melancholy legacy. 

As in the Prokofiev, however, not all was abject hopelessness. In the first moment, the woodwinds took flight when given the chance. The opening theme of the second movement, a lovely, waltz-like melody, was imbued by the cellos with warmth and beauty. The brilliant pizzicato passages sparkled.  Every note that clarinetist Daniel Ottensamer played was pure bliss. There was even a ray of hope in the fourth movement’s main theme, first heard in the strings and then echoed in the horns, before it increased in volume and intensity to almost horrifying level. 

The pizzicato notes from the contrabasses that end the work were like the final beats of a human heart. Silence ensued for a good while after Nézet-Séguin gave the subtlest of indications that the audience could now applaud. Only a very few, however, were eager to dispel the mood, melancholy and pensive though it was, cast by these superb musicians.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall with music of Ives, Berlioz and Unsuk Chin March 14.

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