Posts Tagged ‘Michael Fokine’

Nézet-Séguin performs Epic Romance with the Berlin Philharmonic

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Conducting the Berlin Philharmonic is no small feat for a 37-year-old, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin—returning to the orchestra’s podium for the first time since his 2010 debut—had no intention to the make the event a small affair. The newly minted music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, seen at the Philharmonie on June 16, juxtaposed Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture with the full three movements of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé as sung by the Rundfunkchor Berlin. It took Ravel three years to complete this ‘choreographic symphony’ to a commission by Diaghilev in 1909, and the score is usually reduced to two-part suite arrangement (penned by composer in 1911) for concert performance. The 1912 premiere of the full ballet in Paris did not go down as a success following Diaghilev’s open disinterest in Ravel’s score during rehearsal and the opening of Débussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune the previous month, featuring provocative choreography by Nizhinsky that usurped public attention.

While Daphnis et Chloé reveals Ravel’s intricate powers of orchestration at their height, with rich impressionist tapestries and pictorial evocations of celestial groves, its subtleties struggle to reign in the listener for its full duration (just under an hour) without the presence of a ballet corps. Much like Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, which Sir Simon Rattle conducted last season alongside Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, it is—at least based on the performance I saw—a difficult piece to pull off in the concert hall. Nézet-Séguin had a clear sense of what we wanted from the orchestra and did not let the reins slack on a body of players who often dictate what is happening onstage at least as much as the conductor, and his French-speaking roots certainly worked to the performance’s advantage through the ethereal ebbs and flows of Ravel’s music, yet the Philharmonic’s handsome elegance remained a bit staid for moments of sheer nymph-like grace. The orchestra nevertheless thrived through the score’s transparent textures, such as the rapid flute and harp over muted strings that imitate the sound of rushing brooklets before building into a majestic view over the nymphs’ prairie in the third tableau.

The story, adapted by Michael Fokine from an ancient Greek romance, tells of the courtship between the goatherd Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé, who is kidnapped by pirates but saved by her father, Pan. Once Daphnis and Chloé are reunited, a tumultuous final dance of the nymphs celebrates their union. Ravel weaves a simple two-note motive throughout the score to designate the pair’s mystical realm, easily evoking the earth’s breaking in the closing scene. The chorus is deployed atmospherically to enhance a sense of rapture, at one point emerging accompanied. The Rundfunkchor, which recorded this work with Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo in 2010, produced glorious tones here, particularly in the soprano section. Concert Master Guy Braunstein delivered his solo numbers with deeply sensitive musicianship, evoking Daphnis’ approach of Chloé and the young Nymph wandering in the meadow with gleaming tone. The flute and clarinet solos of the Lycanion dances emerged with characteristic elegance and fluidity of communication.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, officially designated as a ‘fantasy overture,’ similarly illustrates the stormy Shakespearean love story in a programmatic development of contrasting tableaus, moving from the prescient concerns of Friar Lawrence before yielding to the feuding Capulets and Montagues. The rich cellos and woodwinds of the opening Andante revealed the Philharmonic in top form, and the violins lamented with a well-rounded vibrato under Braunstein. Nézet-Séguin led a tight, fiery Allegro, and the longing wind solos during the couple’s first meeting on Juliet’s balcony left little to be desired. Still, having recently heard the Marinsky, the seas of string pianissimi had a slightly brittle quality. The orchestra redeemed itself with the clean attacks and immaculate synchrony of the whirlwind inner movement. The elegiac homage to the lovers in the final Moderato, punctuated by the theme of the warring factions, burned with tension.

The program opened with Berio’s Sequenza IXa for clarinet solo, a virtuosic yet poetic exploration that Walter Seyfarth, a player with the Philharmonic since 1985, dispatched with impressive technical control and dynamic nuance. The piece takes the form of a structured yet unstable train of thought, evolving through runs across the instrument’s full range into a kind of internal dialogue that culminates in a blaring high note which is juxtaposed with increasingly vehement melodic opposition until it is echoed in resigned resolution. Allusions to the vocalisations of Berio’s spouse and muse Cathy Berberian and saxophone-like motifs expand the clarinet’s dimensions into nearly operatic planes. While the connection of this piece with the rest of the program remained unclear—an unusual occurrence at the Philharmonic—it is heartening to watch Berio become standard fare in the German capital.

The Philharmonie at dusk

The Philharmonie on Potsdamer Platz (c) Schirmer/Berliner Philharmoniker