YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN and the Rotterdam Philharmonic at de Doelen

In one of his final concerts as chief conductor with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Yannick Nezet-Seguin is once again embarking on the well-travelled route of romanticism. We should enjoy these last concerts with the Canadian shooting star as chief in Rotterdam, before we welcome the next shooting star in Lahav Shani as the new chief conductor in September.

But beforehand, Nezet-Seguin will conduct two more programs: First the one tonight comprised of Haydn, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky and then his final appearance as chief conductor, also commemorating the 100th anniversary of the orchestra in June.

The orchestra will be taking this program on a tour through Europe, we start with Haydn’s Symphony No. 49. As always with the Rotterdam Orchestra, the winds are at the forefront and this makes certain classical pieces difficult: To achieve the delicate balance in the dynamics and to really show the rhythmic and melodic contours of these classical pieces, the conductor has to change the orchestra’s sound. The orchestra is perfectly suited to romantic music, but the Haydn sounds a little bit like underfed Schumann to me. There is a certain heaviness to the music, a resemblance to the prelude of Haydn’s Creation. The symphony does not fly until the last movement. Here, Nezet-Seguin is slightly more lenient and open with the tempi; the music starts dancing, the dramatic edges are more accentuated.

The highlight of the evening is without question the Rotterdam Philharmonic debut of Yuja Wang. The young, chinese-born pianist rose to fame quickly in the last few years and has just come from an appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker under their new chief conductor designate Kirill Petrenko. Certainly not bad. The two concertgoers sitting next to me saw that concert as well and happily inform me that she is wearing the same pink-shimmering dress this week, that she also wore in Berlin last week. Well, isn’t that special?

Wang is playing Rachmaninov’s rarely performed Piano Concerto No. 4.My neighbours inform me that hearing her in the Philharmonie last week was much easier last week in Berlin. I am inclined to agree, Yuja Wang is often swallowed up by the strong, deep and romantic sound of the large orchestra. A dose more dynamic control would have served the orchestra well. It is not always possible for Wang to carve out her space next to orchestra.

That does not impact the fact that her technical ability is uncanny. The Rachmaninov is anything but an easy piece, but Wang masters hit through her delicate balancing between technical command and giving in to the emphatic, deep and sonorous passages of the piece. Her attack is rounded and precise, yet also shimmering with light whenever it manages to outshine the orchestra in terms of dynamics. At the end we have a thoroughly romantic and technically perfect performance, in which the soloist has some minor difficulties due to a rather large orchestra.

After the interval, Nezet-Seguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic close out the night with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This piece is often more difficult than it looks. Of course, the brass starts out brilliantly with a searing intensity and technical command of the opening, menacing calls. This is truly the brass calling to anyone around in the best possible fashion. However, while the orchestra was overly present in the Rachmaninov and quite romantic in the Haydn, it begins rather restrained and cautiously in the Tchaikovsky. Nezet-Seguin seems to have taken Karajan’s famous maxim to heart, that a single piece only has one single climax. And while that may be a useful goal for a Bruckner symphony or Wagner opera, it makes this Tchaikovsky symphony seem quite subdued.

Only in the final two movements do the emphatic nature  of this symphony and the dominance of pain truly break out. Here, we slowly start hearing the complete, built-up symphony. Even though the dynamics (and the percussion) still seem a little taken back to me in the fourth movement, Nezet-Seguin allows for brilliant phrasing here. The solo winds and also the strings in their pizzicato passage in the third movement have wonderful moments to shine with exquisite melodic work.

In the Tchaikovsky it would have been fantastic if orchestra and conductor went a little bit further off book, especially in terms of dynamic and general orchestral strength. It must be somehow ironic that I was thinking of Karajan’s interpretations of the Fourth, that were always filled with raw, untamed energy and force.     Yannik Eisenaecher      26th April 2018

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics