by Michael Caruso
With all concerts and staged performances of classical music cancelled until after the novel corona virus is brought under control, it has fallen to our local PBS station, WHYY, to keep us in “tonal touch” with some of the greatest music ever composed. Fortunately, WHYY hasn’t let us down.
Over the past weekend, WHYY aired a concert featuring Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies Saturday evening. The previous night, the station broadcast the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot.” The Met is both the world’s grandest classical music organization and Nezet-Seguin’s “other” ensemble.
Beethoven’s nine symphonies form the core of the classical canon. Many composers wrote many excellent symphonies. Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner and Mahler are just a few. Yet no other musician composed a masterpiece each and every time he put his hand to the symphony. There’s not a weak link among the nine. Each one is distinct from all the others, and each one emerges as a perfect specimen of musical classicism.
The concert WHYY aired was the first of the scheduled series of renditions of all nine Beethoven symphonies, originally set for March 12, 14 & 15 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall and March 13 in New York’s Carnegie Hall, where Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra are in residence. By the time the first date arrived, however, all public concerts had been cancelled. The Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were played on the stage of an empty Verizon Hall. Fortunately WHYY’s cameras and microphones were there to broadcast a performance that transcended time and place just as Beethoven’s music always does.
Nezet-Seguin’s style of Beethoven interpretation comes upon the legacy of many great conductors leading the Philadelphians. Ormandy’s Beethoven was noble, Muti’s a tad lightweight, Sawallisch’s hearty and Eschenbach’s tortured. The characteristic traits of Nezet-Seguin’s readings of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were “driven” and “explosive.” While never eschewing either nobility or heartiness, nor overlooking the inner struggles of a composer losing his hearing, Nezet-Seguin took a far more emotionally direct tack and clearer texture with both.
From the very first of those most famous four notes in the repertoire, Nezet-Seguin didn’t waste a second or a sound throughout the first movement. He drove the Philadelphians directly into the instantaneous thematic development that Beethoven employed, laying bare every rhythmic twist and turn of the music and laying out every harmonic journey on the map.
There was no dawdling in the second movement, and the third was electrified. He then moved into the closing movement as though there wasn’t a moment to squander until he reached the repeated c-major triads that never sounded repetitive.
While the Fifth Symphony is the very essence of abstract structure, the Sixth, called “Pastoral” by Beethoven, is the progenitor of romantic program music. It details an excursion into the countryside that includes a happy arrival, a scene by a brook, a merry gathering, a storm, and gratitude after the tempest has subsided. And yet, despite a canvas of evocative tone painting, Beethoven never lost sight of the tightly knit form that was his calling card.
In Nezet-Seguin’s reading of this glorious score, the peasants occasionally seemed as though they were on steroids. All the same, not one note stuck out of place. Each and every one pointed to the music’s satisfying conclusion.
The Philadelphians struck a flawless balance between the technical security of modern instruments and the performance styles of the early 19th century. Projection was polished while the timbre was radiant. Equally praiseworthy was the placement and balance of WHYY’s microphones; the camera work was no less admirable.
Although Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, “Turnadot,” might very well have turned out to be his best – its pages contain some of his most advanced music – that’s not what happened. Struggling to compose music for characters and a story he didn’t like, he didn’t complete the score before he died, leaving it to the uninspired Franco Alfano to finish. To observe that the finale is weaker than what goes before it is like pointing out that the corona virus can be dangerous.
All the same, it packs a wallop when seen and heard onstage, especially one as vast as that of the Metropolitan Opera. Even if the production proffers too much busywork and too few great singers, one can’t help but be grateful to PBS and WHYY for bringing “Turandot” to local opera lovers.
While Franco Zeffirelli’s production occasionally lapsed into the stereotypical images of a century ago, Puccini’s music never does. Relying upon his own ear to evoke the modes of traditional Chinese music, Puccini crafted a score of melting lyricism, daring harmonies and shimmering orchestration.
The principal weakness in the cast came in its title role: soprano Christine Goerke as Princess Turandot, one of the most hateful characters in the repertoire. Sometimes singing a quarter-tone flat, she lacked the steely power to handle the high tessitura and overcome the dazzling score but also the regal refinement for her love-inspired transformation at the opera’s conclusion.
Tenor Yusif Eyvazov made a dashing Calaf, the “Unknown Prince” Turandot must name by the dawn. He sang with surpassing passion and eloquent lyricism, most especially in “Nessun dorma,” the last great tenor aria in the canon. Soprano Eleanora Buratto was a delicate yet determined Liu, willing to die to protect Calaf, and Academy of Vocal Arts alumnus James Morris was a touching Timur, Calaf’s defeated father.
But the true star of the show was the Met’s new music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. His conducting overcame the score’s imperfections and the mounting’s defects through sheer conviction. He commanded his soloists, chorus and orchestra with consummate power and serene sensitivity.
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