wed 27/01/2021

LPO, Nézet-Séguin, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

LPO, Nézet-Séguin, Royal Festival Hall

LPO, Nézet-Séguin, Royal Festival Hall

A limp evening of music is more French farce than La Vie En Rose

A programme of French music under the baton of the LPO’s talented young principal guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin should be a treat. Nézet-Séguin’s affinity for French textures and gestures has already been amply proved, as has the orchestra’s own aptitude for them, yet whatever was happening to the Fauré Requiem last night at the Royal Festival Hall was neither polished nor delightful. To attribute it simply to a bad day might be the kindest thing, but when you take into account the sold-out hall, the Saturday-night profile of the concert and all the people who had come to London’s major classical venue expecting a quality performance of core repertoire, such lazy musicianship deserves neither kindness nor the applause the audience gave so generously.

The first half – Franck’s Symphony in D minor – was unquestionably the lesser of two evils. Neglected and something of a maverick work, its unorthodox three-movement structure, casual dalliance with sonata form and verbose self-referentiality make it an easy target (Gounod famously described it as “incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths”). With an overgrown structure not quite supported by its miniature themes, it relies on precision of textures and a carefully calibrated arc of emotion if it is not to stray into the territory of the absurd.

Yet there are some glorious colours; the fretful first subject of the opening Lento is shaded by doubt lurking in the brass, the delicate neuroses of the oboe (beautifully rendered by Ian Hardwick) and the uncertain temper of the strings. The symphony’s cumulative effect is more potent than its fragmented melodies should permit, and while we got plenty of detailed gestural work from the orchestra there was a certain scope lacking. This is music that moves (admittedly rather incoherently) from despair to wry comedy by way of ecstasy; what we got was a rather more polite and non-committal series of emotions -Gallic shrugging instead of fiery French melodrama.

There was also rather too much sloppiness for my taste. The harp and pizzicato string accompaniment in the Allegretto was less than precise, the strings generally lacked much sense of ensemble attack, and while a poorly tuned harp is never ideal it is positively criminal in a movement ending with a solo harp arpeggio. Ouch.

The Fauré that followed saw the addition of the London Philharmonic Choir as well as soloists Gerald Finley (pictured below) and Sally Matthews. Using the composer’s final orchestration from 1900 (demanding by far the largest orchestra), the LPO were able to retain some good chunks of their musicians, magnificently flanked by a full complement of eight double basses.

Gerald_Finley_102The dramatic pianissimo is the enemy of the amateur choir. Exposing every hiss, crack and shallow breath, it can also spread fear like typhoid through the ranks. Making few concessions to his singers, Nézet-Séguin made something of a feature of these extreme dynamics, losing vocal tone, support and spin to the sound while gaining really very little return. Diction was all but nil (Matthews single-handedly outdid the entire choir with hers), and the intensity that should characterise the desperate exhortation of the Requiem’s opening – “Requiem aeternam dona eis” – was limp and lacking.

While the men and altos did well enough (with the tenors deserving a particular mention for the bravery of their “Hosanna” entry) the sopranos were a horror show. Flat, breathy and scooping into every entry, this was the stuff of parochial choral societies, and under such attack Fauré’s expansive melodies stood no chance. The orchestra did little to help, with the harp (still out of tune) and organ spectacularly getting a beat out during the "In paradisum", leaving something of a blot on the celestial horizon.

I’d love to say that the soloists redeemed matters but, while two unquestionably lovely singers, they were ill chosen for this material. Finley’s strength is as a lyric baritone, and neither the declamatory strength of the "Libera me" nor even the more floated "Hostias" seemed to settle, lacking resonance and sitting a little under the note throughout. Less Day of Judgement and more day out in the Malvern Hills. Matthews also misjudged the tricky RFH acoustic, with an almost wilfully contained "Pie Jesu". Her trademark dark vowels stuck out badly, distorting the simplicity of the syllabic setting.

More rehearsal time; a more sensitive approach to amateur singers; a clearer sense of dramatic architecture: last night’s concert could have been improved so easily. I don’t really want to know whether it was priorities or simply practicalities that proved the undoing of Nézet-Séguin and the LPO, I’d just like an assurance that it was an anomaly. In these precarious days of funding cuts and squeezed middle-class audiences, we don’t need our orchestras offering up even the smallest weakness to the scrutiny of the bureaucrats or the smallest excuse for concert-goers to stay at home of a Saturday night.

Below, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the LPO perform Ravel's La Valse

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It seems from this review that I was at a different concert. As regards the Franck symphony, I found the performance thoroughly engaging in its variety, light and shade, brought out by Nazet-Seguin and the fine playing of the LPO. I realise that in reviews one must allow for the subjective feelings of the reviewer and, perhaps, his or her superior musical knowledge. However, Alexandra Coghlan's review is simply patronising, snide and arrogant, ignoring the tremendously positive response to the performance from the audience, which is reflected in other reviews of the concert (see the Telegraph and the Independent). Faure's Requiem was masterly, with the London Philharmonic Choir's riveting hushed opening (so disparaged by Coghlan) moving on to an overall tremendous performance. And Gerald Finley's lyric singing was absolutely in keeping with a work that essentially stresses peace, not retribution. One wonders about this reviewer's agenda - maybe that such a dismissive, insensitive review would not go unnoticed?

I wasa't there but I find it so hard to believe Nezet-Seguin ever guilty of 'lazy musicianship', only of sometimes over-egging the pudding in his great love for what he does. Is it possible the reviewer is guilt of lazy listening, or lack of sympathy for the Franck? And the final remark is not worthy when it's hard to persuade outsiders re funding. if anyone can get new audiences engaged, it's young Yannick.

Rosemary - you may not have read Richard Morrison in the Times was also rather heavily sceptical about the concert. When I go to a concert it is with every hope and expectation of enjoyment. There's no fun for me in sitting through a poor evening of music. If I write with vehemence it is because I was genuinely upset by what I heard, rather than for the sake of posturing. I'm not sure how you explain away the actual mistakes in the evening, or whether you feel that this many technical errors are acceptable given the full LPO concert diary? I was there with a friend (both of us experienced performing and academic musicians) who felt similarly strongly that it was not a good performance.

I was at this concert with my daughter and grand daughter aged 14 and all I can say is that my daughter remarked at the end of the evening, " I thought I was in heaven!" Judging by the response from the audience, she wasn't the only one. Some of us go to enjoy, not to see how much fault we can find and we enjoyed EVERY minute!

I was at the concert and I would say that some of the technical criticisms are accurate. But to imply that the event was more or less entirely devoid of musical merit is in my view entirely misleading. And the final paragraph would perhaps have benefited from a little more of 'sensitivity' the author claims to have been lacking in the conductor.

Many decades ago, the Royal Festival Hall would publish in its monthly brochure an amusing section called 'Point Counterpoint' in which the hilariously contradictory views of critics were pitched against one another. Nowadays, it is entirely possible to do this for oneself, and Alexandra Coghlan's review, or rather trashing, ripely offers itself. Referrring to the performance of the Franck Symphony, she says: '...what we got was a rather more polite and non-committal series of emotions -Gallic shrugging instead of fiery French melodrama.' However, Tim Ashley in the Gaurdian, giving the concert 4/5, regarded the concert as 'hugely important' in rescuing the piece: 'Nezet-Seguin was superb in his architectural control and blistering in his delineation of the work's emotional trajectory. Begun in fire and turbulence, the performance ended in elated rapture.' So that would be 'non-committal' then. Ed Seckerson in the Independent was also hugely enthusiastic (4/5) about 'this vibrant come-back performance'. Ivan Hewitt (4/5) in the Telegraph found it a 'glowing performance' in which ...all cohered'. It is also entirely disingenuous to suggest that Richard Morrison 'was also rather heavily sceptical about the concert'. What he actually said about the Franck was: 'I can't imagine a better champion than Yannick Nezet-Seguin'. Morrison's problem was with the work itself. There is more general agreement about shortcomings in the Faure Requiem, although Ashley praised Nezet-Seguin as 'an impeccable conductor of choral music, and the fervour and monumentality of the LPO Choir's singing were remarkable.' I could offer many further contrarian quotes. While I appreciate that critics are entitled to differ, I find it not only inaccurate, but also grossly unfair to suggest that '...such lazy musicianship deserves neither kindness nor the applause the audience gave so generously', and that these performances are a threat to public funding. That is an absolutely outrageous claim. Nor do I take to the patronising tone adopted in the response to Rosemary. The critic and her friend might well be 'experienced performing and academic musicians', but what does that make everyone else who has a radically differing opinion - a load of cloth-ears? And presumably, by extension, the noted broadsheet critics giving this concert 4/5 are tone-deaf and incompetent? For what it's worth, I enjoyed these performances immensely. With over fifty years of concert-going, I have never managed to hear the Franck live, although, like many others, I was brought up on Beecham's classic EMI recording from France and have lived with Monteux's wonderful RCA version, now in superb SACD. Nezet-Seguin had a marvellous grip on structure of this piece so that the fabulous shift into D major at the end of the first movement was a hugely uplifting moment. Splendid playing from all sections, especially the woodwinds, and a thoroughly joyous last movement. Some niggles in the Faure, particularly with the solosits, but what typically imaginative LPO planning to set this piece against the Franck. Despite the choice of this enlarged 1900 version, Nezet-Seguin's dramatic, yet profoundly reflective take on the work was very moving indeed. Your critic doesn't seem to be having much fun at all these days, since she also had a miserable time at Florez's recital the other day.

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