mon 01/06/2020

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

LPO, Nézet-Séguin, Royal Festival Hall

LPO, Nézet-Séguin, Royal Festival Hall

A peerless account of Bruckner's Eighth

We Brucknerians aren't easy to please. Few musical partnerships get the official seal of approval. Horenstein and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Wand and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic, Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. These are among the handful of collaborations that have gained a place in my Brucknerian pantheon.

We Brucknerians aren't easy to please. Few musical partnerships get the official seal of approval. Horenstein and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Wand and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic, Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. These are among the handful of collaborations that have gained a place in my Brucknerian pantheon. Last night’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, however, saw the London Philharmonic Orchestra and their French-Canadian guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin catapult themselves into these exalted ranks.

Nézet-Séguin is undoubtedly the greatest Bruckner conductor alive today. That’s the sum of it. His performance of the Eighth – as with the Seventh earlier this year – was among the finest concert-going experiences of my life so far, attaining a level of intensity, a unity of purpose, that led one friend to wonder whether perhaps Nézet-Séguin was in fact a reincarnation of Bruckner himself.

There was a vitality from the off. The opening phrase lept from the anxious, fiery depths, in a clear sign that what we were about to witness was going to be very special indeed. It was this and more: spontaneous, potent and masterful. Perfection, in a word, musical lines flowing out from Nézet-Séguin as effortlessly as the air from his lungs.

The conception was Romantic, the sweep and flexibility Mengelbergian, almost. Moments that have always seemed odd or incongruous were given new meaning and coherence. Sweep and structure, phrasing and pacing, balance and coloration were being juggled with a supreme and rightful self-confidence. There was only one downside to this fluency. The faltering quality that is to be found in all of Bruckner’s music – as it was to be found in the man himself - the discomfort with the world around, was not always preserved. The stuttering opening to the Adagio could have retained its hesitancy; removing its awkwardness makes the movement’s great moment of grandiloquence a little less surprising. But perhaps this was to save the real surprise: the secret sound world of the coda that was more astonishing than ever.

This same fluency, however, did help in other areas, such as in the unification of the often disparate and unwieldy thematic material of the final movement. Never has it sounded so satisfying or so exciting and the audience responded by rising to give this tiny conductor a huge standing ovation.

To pair this Bruckner symphony with a world premiere of a percussion concerto, however, was surely some kind of joke. There are after all two pieces of percussion in the Eighth, a triangle and a cymbal, both of which appear after a good hour of performance and are dispatched in the conventional way (with a rattle and a smash, respectively). It’s pretty deficient, percussively speaking, Bruckner's Eighth. But, oddly, so was the percussion concerto.

Einojuhani Rautavaara has made a name for himself writing very approachable, very attractive music that has become increasingly minimalistic in style over the years. This must be one of the most minimalistic and least successful or satisfying to date. Partly, this is down to the remarkably unpercussive use of the percussion. Percussion instruments – even those, like the xylophone, that are tuned – do not sing. They cannot sing. And, however hard you try, you cannot make them sing. They will refuse and cut you off from their world by dying. Abruptly. And that’s what happened.

Like some mad pet owner who believes his dog’s a daughter and has installed her in a dress, Rautavaara tried to force Colin Currie and his percussive spread to sing sentimental melodies for their supper. The results were pretty unconvincing. There is a reason why the percussion was never enlisted to make Romantic concertos; it doesn’t work. By no means, however, was this the work’s only fault. Conventional harmonies, weak melodic ideas, a lazy sweep and construction and three seriously deficient endings to each of the three movements put paid to the possibility of any redemption for this negligent new bit of Rautavaara.

To pair this Bruckner symphony with a world premiere of a percussion concerto was surely some kind of joke

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