Wiener Philharmoniker, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Hélène Grimaud
Brahms: Piano concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15
Chaikovsky: Symphony no. 6 in B minor, op. 74 ‘Pathétique’
There was much talk of mutual respect at their recent Künstlergespräch, but in reality Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the easiest pushover the Vienna Philharmonic has had in a long while. A conductor so obligingly taken advantage of can be the orchestra’s cue to switch over to autopilot, with shameless levels of complacency and preventable sloppiness, but under Nézet-Séguin they showed exceptional discipline and were captivating from start to finish.
Nézet-Séguin doesn’t seem to have many big ideas (perhaps they will come), and though this Brahms concerto could do to be grounded in a structurally conceived interpretation it didn’t cohere badly. The strength worth savouring in his conducting is that he takes the music as it comes and concentrates on making every moment sound good (somewhat like Welser-Möst, though with bolder gestures and less micromanagement). The big entries could have been less heavy, but elsewhere Nézet-Séguin kept exemplary balance. The consummate flattery he showed in his talk with Hellsberg was also in evidence, with an elusive key to the riches this orchestra is capable of offering shown as a conductor who can smile at them in the right way from time to time. Wiener heaven from 1911 rained down with signature golden tone from the firsts, though there was nothing unreconstructed about it and for precision and alertness they gave the Berlin Philharmonic a run for their money. All the times one has wanted to curse the Wiener horn are forgotten swiftly enough with solos as outstanding as the remote call with the octave leap in the first movement’s second subject – truly entfernt, and yet played faultlessly and with such poise and resonance, all while looking about as improbably nonchalant as Richard Strauss did on the podium.
This was the first time I’d heard Hélène Grimaud in a couple of seasons and while I maintain that she is a pianist with some interesting niches, concertos don’t show her off at her best and the playing here was pretty poor. It was in fact Grimaud exactly as her detractors claim her to be: scant attention paid to what was happening in the orchestra, odd accents, no line, muddy pedalling, and harsh, metallic tone. I sensed that she wanted to lend depth to the big chords of the second subject, but they just came across as thumped and clumsy. Trills in the first and second movements were, again, attempted with some concentration, but none of it was together or balanced, with too much conspicuous overpedalling to cover up the awkwardness. I also was close enough to hear her non-stop hyperventilating, and while Grimaud’s facial expressions are too enigmatic to tell if they are truly affected they are nonetheless as tedious as any affectation.
The Pathétique directed by a gay conductor is the type of shit Susan McClary lives for. But while the bassoon/bass opening (no bass clarinet short cuts here) was portentously dark, musical events unfolded without Nézet-Séguin making them conform to an anguished programme. The Philharmoniker gave it their lyrical all and at points were clearly expecting to give more – some looks exchanged between the players spoke of entries polished at great length in rehearsal and not so much as cued in performance – though nothing suffered, except perhaps for what Nézet-Séguin might have been setting up before the second subject (put on hold for too long, though a second subject as unimpeachably sincere as this is truly a rare thing). In the development, climax and closing chorale the combined brass were, again, on magnificent form.
The second movement had none of the lilt which might have been expected from this orchestra, but rather a natural, flowing line, with shaping more pronounced than pulse. I feared for a moment at the beginning of the third movement as the firsts were scrappy and more than a little behind, though seeing Nézet-Séguin’s minuscule beat the problem became apparent. In any case things soon got onto a steadier footing, and Nézet-Séguin wound a very tight coil with the tension released at the very last minute in a glorious brass blaze of the sort that normally gets a raucous ovation, if never in a Philharmoniker concert. The hollowness of the triumph soon struck home in their final movement but while torment and despair registered, as they must, they never did so in a way which made me want to reach for the nearest Mariss Jansons recording. As in the first movement, D major heralded something new, possessing a breadth that so often eludes even more drawn-out performances, and gave the minor something of import to extinguish. How much this all had to do with Nézet-Séguin was debatable, with the playing full of the ghosts of Viennese Pathétique past. But what große Geister they are.