I have just returned from a concert featuring l’Orchestre Metropolitain de Montréal led by their superstar conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It was held in the new(-ish) Maison Symphonique, and my wife and I could only get seats in the choir, behind the orchestra. For me, that was a somewhat nostalgic location as I spent many years in my youth singing bass in various choirs from positions pretty much exactly like that one. The first half of the concert featured Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with soloist Joseph Moog, which was followed by Shostakovich’s monumental fourth symphony. With the reputations of the Orchestra Metropolitain and Nézet-Séguin pulling in different directions, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I certainly wasn’t anticipating writing a blog post about it. Funny how things turn out, though.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s star is definitely on the rise. Having only turned 42 last week, he was recently appointed music director of the New York Metropolitan Opera, succeeding the legendary James Levine in what is regarded as the most prestigious opera gig in the world. Already, he has been music director at the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2012, with his contract being extended to 2026. He has been guest conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, both traditional 'welcome-to-the-big-leagues' moments. He has also been principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic since 2005.
By contrast, l’Orchestre Metropolitan (the OM) is definitely Montreal's second orchestra, and - by reputation at least - by quite a margin, in a city where the Orchestra Symphonique du Montréal (the OSM) still reigns supreme with its recently tarnished global reputation being admirably restored under Kent Nagano. Still, Nézet-Séguin, a native Montrealer, has been the OM’s music director since 2000 during which time he has steadily elevated their reputation to the point where he now tours with them internationally. So it was going to be interesting to observe the extent to which YNS would raise the OM to his level, or whether they would drag him down to theirs.
With the opening piece, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, there were elements of both on display. Nézet-Séguin’s Rachmaninov is overtly Viennese in style, loaded with schmaltz, and always threatening to break out suddenly into some kind of polka. The OM, however, is not the Vienna Phil. They fall some way short in terms of intonation, rhythmic integrity, tonal richness, and precision. But YNS does definitely gird their loins to his style of play, and they do respond with commitment and endeavour. The pianist, Moog, from my back-of-stage vantage point at least, came across as a trifle plodding and wanting for a more effusive line of phrasing in order to match up with YNS’s orchestral palette of choice. [Question: Who should be in artistic charge in a Concerto - the conductor or the soloist? Discuss ....] Regardless of how I felt about it, though, the concertgoers were wildly enthusiastic, and brought him back for an encore, for which he played a solo piano piece I did not recognize, and played it quite beautifully.
After the intermission it was on to the Shostakovich. The 4th is probably his toughest symphony, both to listen to and - for the conductor - to find an interpretive path which can bring a sense of cohesion. It was written at a dark time in Stalinist Russia where purges of every flavour were indiscriminately wiping the citizens out. Shostakovich had completed his opera “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, which appeared to be rather successful. However, a couple of days after Stalin himself attended a performance, it was denounced in Pravda as being of dubious morality. Shortly thereafter, while Shostakovich was rehearsing his newly-completed 4th Symphony, word arrived that this new piece was deemed to be too “formalist” and was not at all compatible with the prevailing doctrine of “Socialist Realism”. A panicked Shostakovich eventually withdrew the piece, fearing that he would soon be arrested.
A year later, Shostakovich announced his new 5th Symphony, famously prefaced as “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism”. The new symphony, much to the composer’s relief, was deemed acceptable and his reputation rehabilitated. Many years later, it became clear that the 5th Symphony was in fact a robust and deeply cutting parody on Soviet Russia, and that from that point forward Shostakovich had found and perfected a style wherein he could express his loathing of the Soviet system from within, and without any apparent fear of detection.
All that, of course, is Shostakovich 101. What is not discussed nearly as widely is this. The three-movement 4th Symphony is a wild and barely-controlled ride through the chaos of Stalin’s purges. It calls for an absolutely colossal 125-piece orchestra, the largest in the standard repertoire. Structurally, it is all over the place. Its two outer movements, both a good half hour in duration, seem to be possessed of very little to hold the music’s progress together. The shorter central movement meanders along in a manner that prompts you to wonder what the point is. Overall, you can hardly expect to walk out of a performance whistling its tunes. It is perhaps - paradoxically - this very absence of apparent form which led to its condemnation as “too formalist”, whatever that term is supposed to mean. The point is, it's not just Soviet doctrinary theoreticians who find the work tough to get on with.
The 5th Symphony, by contrast, is classically structured. And that is, to my view, a key point. In writing his 5th Symphony in response to the potentially lethal criticisms levied at his 4th, he created a fundamentally better-balanced work. It is a massive advancement in maturity. In responding to a politically-motivated criticism he actually learned a valuable musical lesson. You can hear its application to all of his major works for the remainder of his lifetime. And they are, realistically, the better for it. Shostakovich himself seems to have accepted that. He once said, late in life, that without “Party Guidance” he might have written more "pure" music. We can only wonder what that might have meant. As it was, under the oppressive influence of “Party Guidance”, tempered by his own genius and discipline with the use of parody, satire, and allegory, he became arguably the greatest symphonist - Russian or otherwise - of the entire 20th Century. But the 4th Symphony, meanwhile, remains a standout within his oeuvre for its ferocious indiscipline.
From reading the above you would be reasonably confident in assuming that I am not a fan of the work. Nothing could be farther from the truth - it is by far and away my favourite Shostakovich symphony. But I have never yet heard a performance of it that I think comes close to nailing it good and proper. Even Kondrashin's seminal 1963 recording, held by many to be the pinnacle, doesn't quite do it for me.
So here we come to Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Metropolitan. What can they make of this immense challenge? Well, from the first bars it is evident that they are up for it, and I am absolutely spellbound. There are two recordings that stand out in my classical music collection for the sheer level of commitment of the players - Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (to which, after hearing it, Stravinsky’s legendary reaction was “Wow!!”), and Richard Cooke’s 1997 recording of Orff’s Carmina Burana, where the give-it-120% commitment extends to the solo vocalists. I can now add to that Nézet-Séguin’s Shostakovich 4th. The first movement in particular was absolutely stunning and I can honestly say I have never heard anything that comes remotely close. It was absolutely riveting from the first bar to the last. And if I might have wanted for the Vienna Philharmonic during the Rachmaninov, I felt during the moment that I would not have substituted the OM for any other orchestra in the world during the Shostakovich, even though the ragged edges were plain to hear from time to time.
I know something of absolute commitment. I once blasted forth from the choir at full volume a bar too early during a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast! Sir William himself was in the audience (and I have his autograph on my copy of the score to prove it). I hope he didn’t mind. The greatest musical performances all happen when the performers are standing with their toes over the precipice. Even so, it is very rare - particularly with orchestral ensembles - to encounter that level of commitment. An orchestra is by nature a disciplined environment, in which there is a preference for individuality to be subsumed by conformity. [This is where Jazz and Rock most obviously diverge from Classical.] So when it does happen, and the execution matches the commitment, it is a thing to behold, most particularly if the performance is under such expert guidance as Nézet-Séguin delivered today.
I do have one issue with the performance, though. Following the shattering onslaught of the first movement, the second movement has nowhere to go, and even Nézet-Séguin finds himself short of somewhere complementary to take it. The first and third movements are all but devoid of form, and where the first movement is heavy on bombast and aggression, the third is more introspective and contemplative (it brings to mind the Ruhevoll of Mahler's 4th with its triumphant brassy chorale that tries to corral the forces towards the expected upbeat conclusion, but fails - instead giving way to an ambiguous pianissimo closing coda). There is no apparent role for the second movement to play as an intermediary between the two. It doesn't function as a scherzo as such, nor does it set the table for the finale in the manner of Beethoven. In fact, I am inclined to suggest cutting it entirely. I am intrigued by the notion that the symphony might work much better as a two movement piece. Such ideas, though, do not find favour in classical music circles, given that even Klemperer's suggestion of cutting the number of flutes from six to four was considered controversial. Not that it's a bad movement, though. In fact I plan to experiment with inserting it between the first and second movements of the 7th Symphony ... but that's for another day.
To my ears, as he held the silence into which the third movement's coda drifts for what seemed like an eternity while the last achingly beautiful notes of the celesta evaporated into nothingness, Nézet-Séguin had announced himself as potentially the greatest Shostakovich conductor of his generation. This from a man who has recently released a Bruckner cycle (which I haven’t heard) in which he apparently announces himself as the greatest Brucknerian of his generation, so the guy has some serious talent. Even if he’s maybe not quite there yet with his Rachmaninov…
I just want to conclude with some comments on the business of reviewing music. I have previously written the occasional review of recorded performances. These are easier to do, since you can play the piece over and over again, or listen to it on and off over a protracted period in order to get your thoughts in order, or just to give your opinions time to gel. You can’t do that with a live performance. It’s an ephemeral thing. I can’t go back and experience it again. Which is a pity. I can only write about what I thought I experienced in the moment. [The late conductor Sergiu Celibidache famously thought along similar lines, and would never record in a studio - he only agreed to his live performances being recorded.] But, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, there are options here! The whole concert is apparently going to be shown on TV, broadcast on radio, and streamed on-line. It will be really interesting to watch it again, and compare what I see and hear with what I have just written, even though the sound quality will be an anemic and heavily-compressed MP3 format. How well will it stand up?
UPDATE: You can stream it here: http://www.icimusique.ca/articles/18132/yannick-nezet-seguin-concert-12-mars-webdiffusion - and yes, the sound quality sucks. I don't believe the video is available for streaming, nor am I aware of a commercial release.