In his short but influential volume on Mahler, the late Deryck Cooke said that listening to Beethoven and Mahler was like watching two great men walking down a street – the former secure and perfectly at ease, the latter insecure and “scarcely able to credit [his greatness] in his heart of hearts, uncertain whether the street will not suddenly cease to be a reassuring background and become hostile territory”.
Those words could have been written to characterise the first in a series of concerts, at home and abroad, featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra under its principal guest conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It began with the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven at his most heroic, and ended with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, notorious for its brittle structure, lurching from anguish to jubilation in a way that suggests psychological instability.
What both parts of the programme demonstrated was that Nézet-Séguin and the LPO have built an exceptional rapport. Their contribution to the concerto was every bit as elegant as Nicholas Angelich’s traversal of the solo part, and a good deal more personable. For all his lightly worn virtuosity, Angelich told us nothing new about the music and little about himself.
The same cannot be said of Nézet-Séguin. The symphony revealed him as a more natural Mahlerian than Vladimir Jurowski, the LPO’s principal conductor, even if he didn’t quite have the measure of its split personality. He played the first two movements without a break – an interesting experiment, as together they form the bitter first half of a work that thereafter radiates joy and light. But the up-tempo speed he set for the second movement was too much of a jolt after his daringly slow funeral march.
The last two movements suffered in the same way, a properly intimate and spacious Adagietto leading to a frothy Rondo-Finale in which the music had insufficient room to breathe. In the middle of all this stood a lithe and limber Ländler movement, where the fragility of Mahler’s music was quietly put aside. In sum, while the concert did not deliver all it promised, it underlined the potential of the LPO/Nézet-Séguin partnership.