The Philadelphia Sound at Carnegie Hall, Masterful and Flawless

By Raymond Beegle

Photo credit: Hans van der Woerd

Photo credit: Hans van der Woerd

Millennial transitions often prove to be a time of political upheaval and artistic fecundity.   A century after the crumbling kingdoms and principalities of Western Europe produced Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, the Romanov dynasty, in its final years, produced Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, nearly rivaling in stature and influence their Germanic predecessors. On June 7 at Carnegie Hall, Yannick Nézet-Séguin presented an intriguing program of early works by three of these Slavic giants, evoking a world view in turns voluptuous, violent, mystical, apocalyptical, born of their contemporary Silver Age poets, among them Akhmatova, Blok and Sologub.

All three offerings of the evening underscored the many virtues of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Their traditional pristine entrances, deft intonation, and flawless ensemble have never been more evident, even under Ormandy or Sawallisch, than with their present music director.   

Mr. Séguin displayed his characteristic powers of approaching the limits of any musical possibility, and, as well, his characteristic joy in performance. He is in the mold of Furtwängler, visionary, never ostentatious, filled with the warmth of humanity and a deep sense of celebration. The Philadelphia Orchestra, a formidable collective personality in its own right, has become increasingly expansive under his masterful direction.

Piano Concerto No. 3, the most popular, of Prokofiev’s five superb concertos, is the ultimate technical showpiece.  Begun in 1917, it was first played by the composer himself in 1921.  One might compare it to a slightly over- decorated Christmas tree where there are so many ornaments the magnificent tree is virtually invisible.  Page after page, wave after wave of relentless fireworks give way at rare intervals to transcendent lyrical passages.  It was given a dazzling performance by the most recent keyboard celebrity, Beatrice Rana, who is indisputably deserving of her acclaim.  Proving herself to be among the most technically transcendent pianists of her day, she offers much poetry in her readings, especially in works of the 18th and 20th century. Her treatment of the 19th century masters, graceful and opulent as it is, tends to be more cool and aloof than the spirit of that time warrants.

Stravinsky’s long lost Funeral Song left a deeper impression on this listener than the earlier 2016 offering by Gergiev. Replete with tremolos and church bells, it very much reflects the composer’s roots in the past, but the sharp edges, the chill, and the hard surfaces of his mature works are evident as well.

The softer contours and warmer temperament of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 which closed the program was a radiant contrast to the decidedly new and austere sensibilities of Prokofiev and Stravinsky.  Rachmaninoff, like Sibelius, slightly to his north and Richard Strauss to his west, embraced the past, and brought to a close the golden era of symphonic music. Maestro Nézet-Séguin, is, at present, its best advocate.

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese. Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.