Nézet-Séguin leads a dizzyingly mixed night of Mahlers with Philadelphia Orchestra

Sat Apr 13, 2024 at 12:45 pm
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in music of Alma and Gustav Mahler Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra on baseball, the one word that explains Yannick Nézet-Séguin is, “you never know.” 

Whether in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera or on the podium in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra—where he was Friday night at Carnegie Hall—the conductor can lead an orchestra in sensitive, expressive performances or use it as a steamroller to flatten everything in his path. Always emoting a heartfelt dynamism, he either has the conviction of deep, nuanced love for the music or the passionate intensity of a one-dimensional enthusiasm.

In a concert dedicated to the Mahlers—Alma and Gustav— Nézet-Séguin showed both sides of his musical personality. With mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill singing four of Alma’s songs, he was a superb accompanist. For Gustav’s Symphony No. 7, after intermission, he was energetically unconcerned about nearly everything the composer might have been trying to say.

The four songs—“Die still Stadt,” “In meines Vaters Garten,” “Laue Sommernacht,” and “Bei dir ist es traut”—comprised all but one of Alma’s Fünf Lieder, composed in 1900-01, before she and Gustav married and he convinced her to give up composing. Written for voice and piano, they were orchestrated in the’ 90s by Colin and David Matthews, excellent realizations that fully honor Alma’s musical thinking.

These songs are heavily in debt to Wagner, his harmonies and sense of musical drama. There is little personal in them other than the influence Alma embraced, but they are finely made, with superb word setting and melodies that are lovely, succinct, and incisive. Each line is elegantly crafted, and the musical articulation of every word is so clear that the music glows with expressive meaning.

Cargill’s singing was exquisite, and her own vocal articulation was so fine that she had the direct appeal and conversational intimacy of a folk singer. Nézet-Séguin modeled the orchestra’s legato phrasing after the singers, and balances within the ensemble and behind Cargill were perfect, with enough presence to sound rich while keeping a space around her so that she was always prominent. Hues were warm to backlight Cargill, who had a luminous shine to her tone.

The Seventh Symphony can be a conceptual challenge to a conductor; what might it mean, how to approach it? It’s his strangest score, with an enigmatic direction, character, and narrative sense, full of not just atmosphere but weirdness.

There was so little of any of these qualities in the performance that one can narrow their appearance down to an isolated moment, the opening statement of the Schezo. There, the slicing portamentos and bends cut through Nézet-Séguin’s thoughtless approach like a paper’s edge against a finger.

The rest was a just a loss. Nézet-Séguin seemed to think of the symphony as a kind of concerto for orchestra, meant to display instrumental technique, though even much of that was lost as most of the interesting details were buried under the weight of strings and brass.

The conductor is nothing if not urgent, and he pushed the orchestra through the score and held up a hand between movements to keep audience applause at bay. This intensity was clearly exciting to many, but flattened the affect of the music. The opening movement had enough clarity that there seemed some promise, but the pace through the fast music was too rapid, and there was little contrast with things like the wonderfully swoony string passage in the middle. 

There was neither enough languor nor neuroticism there nor any atmosphere at all in either “Nachtmusik.” The second was so mannered that it was almost insulting. For a man seemingly in a hurry, keeping an energetic tempo, the finale felt incredibly long. That’s because the playing had nothing to say other than to be loud and proclaim complete triumph after zero tribulations. Sine aspera, ad astra.

The Bamburg Symphony, with pianist Hélène Grimaud, and conductor Jakob Hrůša perform Wagner, Brahms, and Schumann, 8 p.m. April 24. carnegiehall.org

10 Responses to “Nézet-Séguin leads a dizzyingly mixed night of Mahlers with Philadelphia Orchestra”

  1. Posted Apr 13, 2024 at 2:12 pm by ira

    Thank you for this superb and honest review. I was at the concert last night and was totally perplexed by my lack of involvement in the symphony. Your review helped me to understand what was lacking.

  2. Posted Apr 13, 2024 at 3:02 pm by John M. Pushing

    Well…here is another clear example of a non-sense music critic…

    I was in the audience, have been for a long time attending Carnegie Hall performances, and last night was a very energetic, exciting performance.

    Do your job listening and not analizing, the readers want to know the truth, not your particular opinion.Even Mahler will be happy with last night’s concert.

  3. Posted Apr 13, 2024 at 10:54 pm by Roderick Nash

    I was at this concert and Nezet-Seguin’s conducting of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was astounding and exactly what the composer would have loved: passionate, heartbreaking, and demonic. It was a thrilling performance by the great Philadelphia Orchestra! A truly magnificent evening in Carnegie Hall!

  4. Posted Apr 13, 2024 at 11:36 pm by Wong

    Thank you so much for your insightful review, from which I learned! YNS is famous and I adore him, so I had high expectation of this concert, but I was disappointed for all the reasons you said. I thought it was me because the audience seemed to love it, judging by the long applause and standing ovation.

  5. Posted Apr 14, 2024 at 5:28 pm by Viviana Phelps

    The reviewer was extremely harsh……
    I loved every minute so many of us at Carnegie Hall who appreciated it fully.

  6. Posted Apr 14, 2024 at 7:09 pm by Peter

    I thoroughly disagree with this review of the Seventh. Heard it in Philadelphia on Saturday evening, and YNS has the measure of this symphony. The outer movements were full of thoughtful touches and gear shifts, the two nachtmusiks were evocative, and the scherzo was spooky and showed off those Philly strings led by David Kim’s sweet and silky tone. YNS knew what he wanted and he got it. There was a reason for the lengthy standing ovation. For the least popular Seventh! I mean, come on now.

  7. Posted Apr 14, 2024 at 7:31 pm by CastaDiva

    I liked Karen Cargill’s voice very much. She has a warm, throaty, molten sound, and sang Alma’s songs divinely.

    I didn’t know what to make of Gustav’s 7th, even after reading the program notes later. But it was a thrill to hear that great orchestra, and I’m not going to fault YN-S’s conducting of this challenging piece.

  8. Posted Apr 15, 2024 at 10:31 am by Edward Chikofsky

    I was at Friday’s concert and heard one of the best played performances of Mahler’s Seventh that I’ve heard since the deaths of Bernstein and Tennstedt (who performed it in Philadelphia in the late 1980’s).

    The Seventh is so misunderstood because it is one of Mahler’s most relaxed and charming works written with great humor and little ‘weltschmerz.’ Mahler’s fans (and his critics) have never forgiven him for this — they wanted the Sixth Symphony redux. The final three movements are positively Mozartian with much ‘yididshkeit’ (which is why it so appealed to Bernstein). Of course the finale is full of antic touches — the janissary music from Abduction from the Seraglio and quotations from Meistersinger and Lehar. No one forgives Mahler for his rare sense of humor.

    N-S’s performance Friday captures these qualities perfectly and the orchestra was clearly in sync with him. To quote Richard Strauss’ comment after the first performance of ‘Elektra’ — “Well I liked it!’

  9. Posted Apr 15, 2024 at 5:57 pm by Paul

    I played in this performance and, having played the 7th on many occasions and I must say it was one of the most moving, most brilliantly led, and the reading most closely aligned with the exacting and detailed directives in the score. Somewhere I’m sure there is value to music criticism. In this case, and especially in a work of such personal intimacy and vast scope, I’m not sure I see the point.

  10. Posted Apr 28, 2024 at 2:43 pm by farbman, nathan

    We were in attendance on Thur 4/11/24 in Philadelphia and an artist friend analyzed the performance up down and sideways as if looking at a Basquiat. I for one enjoyed the entire experience and the audience seemed to thoroughly appreciate it also. I had previously attended only one other 7th and did not enjoy the rendering, a work beyond its capabilities.

    Kudos to the Philadelphians and the little guy on the podium; they haven’t always played as well.

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