I first encountered the French-Canadian conductor
Yannick Nézet-Séguin when he made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker
in 2010. He gave insightful and exhilarating performances of works by
Messiaen, Prokofiev and Berlioz that couldn’t fail to impress.
Alas, his subsequent Rotterdam Philharmonic recordings of the
(BIS) weren’t in the same league
and made me wonder if I’d misjudged this young maestro. Then in
March 2014 I chanced upon the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this Poulenc/Saint-Saëns
concert and revised my opinion yet again.
The prospect of hearing this coupling in uncompressed sound was very
enticing indeed, not least because I’d get to hear the newly refurbished
RFH organ in all its splendour. The Poulenc concerto, which I came to
know via the classic Simon Preston/André Previn account (Warner-EMI),
is delivered here with a bright spikiness that took my breath away.
This recording is a pretty fair representation of the Festival Hall’s
clean, dry acoustic, and while the organ has never been known for its
low-end punch it’s in full, confident voice throughout.
The throat-grabbing start to the Andante
and the restless timp
figures that follow are superbly projected, and the LPO play with a
mixture of pliancy and bite that I haven’t heard from them in
ages. Balances are good and the all-important timps are commendably
taut and powerful. Goodness, this is an edgy, exciting performance;
the Allegro giocoso
is characterised by gut-gouging string
playing and the Andante moderato
finds O’Donnell at his
most persuasive and pellucid. The depth and range of colour picked up
by this fine recording is simply marvellous.
Nézet-Séguin brings out all the contrasts in this bipolar score with
a confidence and flair that one normally associates with conductors
of far greater experience. His grip is tight but never throttling and
he’s fortunate to have at his fingertips a band that responds
with alacrity to his every demand. The short Tempo Allegro, molto
is as gnarly as I’ve ever heard it, and that dialogue
between organ and timps is as combative as it gets. Contrast that with
the melting strings in the Très calme: Lent
and the skipping
figures in the last section and you have the full measure of this piece
and the combined skills of its executors. There’s no applause
after the work’s arresting sign-off, although I did insert a few
‘huzzahs’ of my own.
As much as I relished the thought of hearing the concerto again Nézet-Séguin’s
airily propulsive account of the symphony was the main attraction for
me. The opening Adagio – Allegro moderato
the same clarity and sense of purpose that defines the Poulenc, yet
the music never sounds brittle or rhetorical. The fairly close recording
zeroes in on the score’s tiniest details and the conductor shapes
and guides it all with considerable elan. Those quiet pizzicato
strings and the noble organ’s first entry are exquisite; as for
the LPO they play with enviable poise and point.
So often this symphony is filled with more hot air than a Montgolfier
balloon, yet here it’s blessed with just the right degree of buoyancy.
Thankfully the organ isn't too dominant; indeed, O’Donnell’s
judicious control of dynamics has a lot to do with the aerated, hear-through
feel of this performance. Meanwhile Nézet-Séguin coaxes telling, rarely
discernible colours from his attentive players. The Allegro moderato
is cleanly articulated and the piano is easily heard.
Phrasing may seem a tad precipitous at times and one might wish for
a bit more warmth to the overall sound, but that’s more than compensated
for by the many pleasures presented here.
The latter part of the symphony is apt to dissemble, and while Nézet-Séguin
doesn’t entirely avoid those pitfalls he does minimise them. The
organ’s magisterial return is nicely scaled and the tramping finale
is tastefully done. The cymbals are well caught – no distracting
spit or spotlighting – and, as paradoxical as it may seem in this
context, the work moves towards a thrillingly proportionate and colourful
close. No grandstanding, just a thoroughly musical apotheosis. Now there
applause, and it’s well deserved. What a pity that
someone in the audience yelps so loudly a nanosecond after the music
has ended; alas, it's a tiresome but all too prevalent practice these
days. The very readable liner-notes, which include details of the organ
refurb, complete a most desirable issue.
Nézet-Séguin rescues an old warhorse from the knacker’s yard;
his bracing account of the Poulenc concerto is a substantial bonus.
Masterwork Index: Saint-Saëns