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Notes From a Tortured Titan

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/07/2021 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies No. 2 & No. 3 (“Eroica”)
Jessica Hunt: Climb

The Philadelphia Orchestra,Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Music Director and Conductor)

Y. Nézet-Séguin (© Hans van der Woerd)

Time shall be the limit of my suffering.
Aeschylus (425-456 BCE), from Prometheus

Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind, but which mankind cannot comprehend.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Our Covid-defiled world and the mind Ludwig van Beethoven have–and had–the same divine curse. The curse of Prometheus. The Titan Prometheus had taken fire from the Gods, given it to Humankind and was punished almost for eternity. Our pre-Covid world had changed abstract equations into space travel and computers and predicted future wonders (give or take a war or two). The downside: Black Plague is with us for Eternity, “thanks” to our discovery of supersonic communications.

Beethoven was an avatar of Prometheus. He came into a Classical musical world, and he gave that world his fire. Only to have his gift turn into torture with his deafness. Yet–and this is essential–like Prometheus Bound to a rock, Beethoven never surrendered into that fate. His incandescent mind flamed into notes and were given to us unworthy mortals for immortality.

All of which is a longwinded introduction to a pretty damned Promethean concert last night given by the Philadelphia Orchestra under their Musical Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, one of four concerts featuring Beethoven to be given at Carnegie Hall.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin, does not modestly hide his genius. For an orchestra as disciplined and highly sensitive as the Phillies, Mr. Nézet-Séguin hardly takes their expertise for granted. Like the young Seiji Ozawa, he cues in every note, he almost topples off the dais with his springing, jumping body movements, his arms are raised, they wave, he swings around, gesticulates and brings his musicians to their extremes.

This writer was once admonished for paying attention to the movements of a conductor. Yet in the case of Mr. Nézet-Séguin, the movements are not only exciting, but the results are equally sensational.

The Beethoven Second Symphony should not have been so sensational. This is a delightful work, a Haydn-style symphony composed by a man who was anything but Haydn. On the pedantic side, Mr. Nézet-Séguin, took the opening Adagio at an unrelenting pace, the following Larghetto and Scherzo were equally hurried along. And finale was a whirligig for the orchestra.

Yet the sounds were nothing less than stunning–and unnerving! That opening movement was the music of a battle. The brass, the kettledrums, the winds were loud and brazen. In effect, it made Haydn’s Military and Strauss’ “The Hero as Warrior” seem like lullabies.

The slow movement (once the anthem for WNYC) was hurried along through the scherzo. And that finale was Beethoven showing off his skill, and those Philly strings buzzing through it with all their skill.

J. Hunt (© Courtesy of the Artist

Following this was another arresting work, Jessica Hunt’s five-minute Climb. While one is reluctant to pair the composer’s personal life with the music, Ms. Hunt’s own notes stated that this music was a depiction of her own disease, which encompasses an almost hellish passage to simply climb stairs (thus the title), a breathlessness, the nightmarish triumph of staying alive. And in an allusion to Beethoven’s own nightmare, she writes, “...he wasn’t alone. None of us are.”

The music–in its blazing opening chords, its harsh breathing, its motive of two flute playing a consistent minor-second note, and a hesitant chorale–was so skillfully orchestrated that one wishes the program notes about this depiction of the disease hadn’t been so literal. Ms. Hunt wrote a stunning work by itself.

For the final Eroica, Mr. Nézet-Séguin made an epic mistake. He didn’t allow a moment’s pause between Climb and those first epochal chords of the Beethoven.

Perhaps metaphysically this was justified. Musically, it was an insult to both composers. One wanted a minute to inhale Ms. Hunt’s work. And one needed at least a minute’s silence before Beethoven’s opening of his revolutionary symphony.

That aside, Mr. Nézet-Séguin didn’t need to blaze his trumpets as in the Second. The notes spoke for themselves. They spoke with intelligence, with cohesion, without artifice. The first movement tension, the transparent fugue of the Funeral March (every instrument heard amid the dense textures), and the flowing textures of the finale, the orchestral sounds before the double-bass pulsing and the final orchestral joy...

This showed the conductor as Prometheus un-bound, the titan surveying the titanic sounds.

Harry Rolnick



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