Roll on, Beethoven: Yannick Nezet-Seguin tackles The Nine

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday July 26, 2022
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Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin photo: Chans Vanderwoerd
Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin photo: Chans Vanderwoerd

After his stupendous leadership of Wagner's "Das Rheingold" on European tour last summer, I vowed I'd never say another bad word about Yannick Nezet-Seguin. The release of his "Beethoven Symphonies" —all nine of them, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) (Deutche Grammophon)— just now means that I need only add that things get even better; this set is not just mandatory listening but augurs to become the preferred choice.

In flight from Bangkok a year and a half ago, I left behind a lifetime's library of books and recordings. It interests me what I replace and in what order. The only other Beethoven symphony recordings I currently own are with Furtwängler (poor me, I know), but I'm willing to say that I won't —don't— want more or better than what Nezet-Seguin has just produced.

I've always been willing to concede that he is, if not strictly unsurpassed, hard to beat as an opera conductor. But my experiences of him on the concert platform, with a huge array of orchestras (he's a busy boy), have been more uneven. An eagerly anticipated live Brahms "German Requiem" with the Vienna Philharmonic turned into a trial that I feared only he or I, but not both of us, would outlive.

Last fall's messy performance of the choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth at the Ukraine Benefit Concert at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is music director, demonstrated more than anything else his sheer bravery. It was exactly the right piece (it always is) for such a concert, and if it showed once again that this is not a work you can pull out of a hat, all the hearts and some of the horns on the Metropolitan stage were in the right place.

The last Beethoven cycle that landed with something close to universal acclaim was also with the COE, under the late Nicholas Harnoncout (Teldec). Nezet-Seguin's commitment to historically valid performance is as great as Harnoncourt's, if differently exercised, and here he oversees the first recordings of the symphonies in the new critical edition.

To be sure, there will be debates about such things as Beethoven's metronome markings and whether they're applied. But even a Beethoven fan with firm opinions about each of the symphonies will thrill at these hyper-alert, bracing new performances.

What's new?

The aural difference from previous editions is striking only in the Ninth, where the changes are not just noticeable but arresting. Elsewhere, tempos are generally brisk to break-neck, but clarity of texture is never sacrificed and some of the real breath-catching moments are unusually slow —no more so than in the spellbinding pair of Adagios in the Fourth Symphony.

Beethoven broke the mold of established symphony form with at least three of the nine, and he swung the cat by its tail in the others. With an astonishing lack of self-regard, Nezet-Seguin mines each one for its unique essence and consistently comes up gold.

Making my way through the set, presented in numerical order —though I have no idea what order they were recorded in— what became increasingly clear to me was that without sacrifice of fidelity to period style, Nezet-Seguin tells us in sound how Beethoven's work adumbrated the music of his successors. His wide, rich experience of the music of the Romantics and beyond, on and off the opera stage, colors these staples of the symphonic repertoire.

Looking ahead, looking back

Take the Sixth, the audience-friendly "Pastoral," whose challenge to conductors is to get the outright nature mysticism right without lapsing into country bumpkinhood. In lesser hands the "nature music," the famous storm in particular, seem mere sound effects. But playing of the caliber here forecasts the kinds of nature depiction we find in Mahler, in music as eager to break formal grounds as Mahler's would become. The storm music looks forward to Verdi. Nor is Tchaikovsky's music for the swans or Stravinsky's for more exotic birds far off.

Beethoven's avid rejection of the ordinary in his First Symphony has a corollary in Mahler's First, but what stands out in Nezet-Seguin's reading is the music's tireless invention and individuality. The Second is a whirlwind calculated to keep you off balance, making the conductor's negotiation of the break-neck internal tempo changes all the more impressive.

For once the Third, the "Eroica," is not so much argued as simply played as the red-blooded hymn to freedom from tyranny that it is. The famous opening of the Fifth becomes, here, a blazing tattoo of sound that both organizes and reverberates throughout the work. The Seventh is as thrilling, and cogent, as I've even heard it, with touches of Shostakovich in its slashing repeated gestures.

If, like me, you reserve a special love for the Eighth, the "bad news" is that, in Nezet-Seguin's masterful reading, there's much you haven't heard before. Sorry, but no matter how many sets of these symphonies you already have, you know what you've got to do.

In the same way that this new Beethoven set opens not with a breath but a blast of fresh air, it ends on a Ninth that feels both naked and yet achieved by everyone involved. Its fundamentals, particularly the famous setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," are met and then excelled, met and excelled again.

This is, along with much else, a nimble Ninth, insisting that its every note be heard, and heard new. Much of the music is articulated march-like, but a clear sense of destination informs the course. You're constantly reminded about how necessary this music is.

Beethoven Symphonies, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor, DG, 5-CD; 2 digital downloads, $49.50

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