Monday, June 18, 2012

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Berliner Philharmoniker

On Saturday night I caught up with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Philharmonie in a concert led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin of music of Berio, Chaikovsky, and Ravel. This was my first visit to the Philharmonie and one of the first times I’d heard the Philharmoniker live conducted by someone other than their current music director Simon Rattle. My impression of their last performance with Sir Simon (in Carnegie Hall) was decidedly mixed, of technical brilliance lacking in any perceptible heartbeat. This was also the first time I’d heard Nézet-Séguin conduct outside the Met, and he, the orchestra, and the concert hall all left me very impressed indeed.

The program opened with Berio’s Sequenza IXa for solo clarinet, and odd choice but apparently they are gradually performing the whole cycle of Sequenze. The Philharmonie’s wonderful acoustics allowed lone clarinetist Walter Seyfarth to resonate clearly even at the softest dynamics. I know this piece from, um, playing it (only casually), and Seyfarth’s account was technically impeccable and extremely clearly thought through. Clarinet multiphonics (the closest we can get to a double stop) are unreliabe and wheezy at best but Seyfarth’s were rock solid.  Motives and structures were clearly defined, but nonetheless it was a bit more an austere plateau than a collection of giant hairpins.  

Perhaps they chose the clarinet sequenza because the next piece, Chaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, opens with a clarinet solo. I don’t know. Anyway, this Chaikovsky was magical, taken with big ultra-Romantic pathos and rubato and schmaltz and all that kind of thing that I like in Chaikovsky and occasionally find suspect in Korngold. Nézet-Séguin took a glutinous approach to the transitions that made the piece more smooth than exciting, but the orchestra’s considerable virtuosity and precision in the fight portions was exciting enough. After my recent spate of neat freak conductors it was nice to hear someone really go for the emotional payoffs, and the horns’ countermelody was a thing of wonder.

Maybe it was the remnants of jet lag but I have to admit my attention drifted at a few points during Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloe—not that it isn’t very beautiful music but I might be in favor of performing the suite versions in this case. The orchestra here sounded more like the one I knew from Rattle, light and precise (even in the trickiest passages in the winds, including wonderful wind solos and one slightly wonky violin one), and yet, when required, very very loud. Nézet-Séguin showed the same flexibility as in the Chaikovsky but also the needed delicacy. The ahs emanating from the Rundfunk Chor Berlin were also excellently balanced with each other and the orchestra.

I find many modern concert halls alienating, but the Philharmonie’s nooks and cranies were fun. It’s like hearing a concert in a retro spaceship!

This concert is included in the Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall and will soon be available ondemand if you’d like to see it yourself.
Berliner Philharmoniker, Philharmonie, 6/16/12. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Walter Seyforth, clarinet, Rundfunk Chor Berlin. Berio, Sequenza XIa; Tchaikovsky/Chaikovsky, Fantasy Overture on Romeo and Juliet; Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe (complete ballet)


Walther von Holzhaufen said...


I've been a faithful reader for a while, but have never posted a comment before. I heard this concert, too, and enjoyed reading what you had to say about it. I generally agree with your thoughts about the performance. I preferred the Ravel to the Chaikovsky ... just a matter of my own preferences. I'm curious about your reaction to the acoustics of the Philharmonie. It's an article of faith in Berlin that the Philharmonie's acoustics are wonderful. I often find the sound a bit too blended and was impressed with the clarity that Nézet-Séguin achieved in the Ravel. I was sitting in Block E on the right ... an interesting perspective on what's happening in the orchestra, but balances are sometimes distorted. Unfortunately, tickets at the Philharmonie are expensive, and one has to accept compromises.

I enjoyed your review of "Fidelio" in Dresden, too. I had thought about going to see it.

Enjoy your travels.

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