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Philadelphia Orchestra

available at Amazon
Hilary Hahn: A Portrait
(excerpts of Korngold concerto) (DG, 2007)

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Bruckner, Symphony No. 7, Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, Y. Nézet-Séguin
(Atma, 2007)
The Philadelphia Orchestra has survived the past few years of financial and leadership crises, but not without some damage to that venerable institution's reputation. Hopes are high that the tenure of the orchestra's new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, inaugurated this year, will stabilize the orchestra, the board, the subscribers and donors. Every great city deserves a great orchestra, and the city of Philadelphia should do all it can to shore up its ensemble, one of the best in the country, and keep it from falling into ruin. We had our annual chance to listen to the Philadelphians in their annual visit hosted by Washington Performing Arts Society, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday night. It was a bittersweet moment to be savored, since the orchestra is not on the WPAS schedule next season.

The opener was a bonbon impossible not to like, the sweet, rambunctious violin concerto by Erich Korngold, the Austrian Wunderkind turned Hollywood glitzmeister. It is a concerto beautifully suited to the elegant simplicity of tone from American violinist Hilary Hahn, who also played it in Munich recently. While Hahn gave ample agitation to the wilder parlando parts of the first movement, it was that clean ribbon of sound she produces on long lyrical lines that made the performance so good. Some of the highest parts of the E string came off slightly pinched, even though Nézet-Séguin went overboard holding down the orchestra to accommodate Hahn's sometimes modest sound, especially in the fragile second movement with its murky veils of orchestral sound.

The freewheeling jig of the third movement, a sort of refined hoedown, was fired by athletic energy from both soloist and orchestra. The swashbuckling hero moments in the score have their echoes in the scores of American film composers, as do the often overused touches of celesta (and gong, tubular bell, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone) in the first movement. (The "Hollywood label" is not attached because of highbrow snobbery, since Korngold literally borrowed sections of the concerto from his film scores.) For her encore, Hahn chose not to go with one of the pieces from her Encores Project but with an oldie but a goodie, the gigue from Bach's third partita (E Major, BWV 1006), in just the right spirit to follow Korngold's dance-like third movement.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, At Kennedy Center, Philadelphia Orchestra’s new leader turns up the volume (Washington Post, May 3)

Emily Cary, Visionary violinist Hilary Hahn and the Philadelphia Orchestra together again (Washington Examiner, April 30)

Jens F. Laurson, Ionarts-at-Large: Dallas SO and @violincase in Munich (Ionarts, March 21)

Dutoit in Philadelphia:
2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009

Yannick Nézet-Séguin:
Leipzig (2011) | Interview (2010)
Salzburg Festival (2010) | NSO (2008)
If Nézet-Séguin wanted to make a show of confidence in his bid to maintain the Philadelphia Orchestra's legacy, programming Bruckner's seventh symphony (E major, WAB 107) was one way to do it. We last heard the piece from Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra just last year, but it is one of the most often heard of the Austrian composer's symphonies. Many elements of this performance were in just the right place, like the spectacular power of the orchestra's brass section (including the four Wagner tubas) and Nézet-Séguin's insistence on real delicacy of sound in the soft moments. While this attention to sonic detail made the high points of the score, those blossoming crescendos of massive sound, more effective, some of this focus on the small parts -- right from the beginning with an arching, longing opening statement from the cellos -- took away from the overall picture of this long work (not unlike Nézet-Séguin's recording of this symphony with the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal). The big climaxes often seemed to fall victim to micromanagement, like the glorious Wagnerian "Rheingold" moment in the last thirty bars of the first movement: one long crescendo on a single unchanging E major (extended) chord, beginning with the E pedal point at Rehearsal W ("Sehr feierlich") and really getting going when the harmony resolves to E major (with just minor movement) at Rehearsal X ("Sehr ruhig").

Another example was the extensive second movement, with the opening statement of its main theme and many other details all stretched out, in a way that deflated the overall power of the movement. The performance had many admirable parts but did not add up to something as emotionally thrilling as it could have been. The final climax, a crescendo up to fff, was not as cataclysmic as possible: even though Nézet-Séguin did include the cymbal crash and triangle roll, added by Bruckner late in the rehearsal process on a piece of paper pasted onto the score (at Rehearsal W), it did not seem all that loud. (The effect is much the same on his OMM recording.) Likewise, the third movement did not seem quite as fast as "Sehr schnell," as Nézet-Séguin seemed to go for a stronger etching of the various motifs, in stark contrast to the soupy strings of the trio. The fourth movement was perhaps the most satisfying, at a tempo that did not feel too fast, with imperious orchestral unisons and long pauses where they were called for. Still, to stretch out a long Bruckner symphony without achieving the overall sweep needed does nothing to help this sort of work.

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