On Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played a concert in Carnegie Hall, under the leadership of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the new music director of the Met. (He has just completed his rookie season.) On the program were two of the greatest pieces ever written: the Rückert-Lieder of Mahler and the Symphony No. 7 of Bruckner.
I have a question for you: If you love the music on a program, do you love or like the concert, regardless of the performance or performances? Or does quality of performance matter even more than usual, because you love the music so?
Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you. I will give that most boring of answers: It depends. Maybe we can expand on this question another time.
The soloist in the Rückert-Lieder was Elīna Garanča, the great mezzo-soprano from Latvia. As you may know, Mahler prescribed no order for these five songs. Performers order them in various ways. Friday night’s began with “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder,” a choice that I would not make, but then, I wasn’t asked.
If I had a rule about the order of these songs, it would be this: Whatever you do, end the set with “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (the greatest song ever written) (if it’s not “Bist du bei mir,” or “Amarilli”). Friday night’s performers indeed ended with this song.
In “Blicke mir . . .,” Garanča was not in her best voice. She had not very much low. Also, singer and orchestra were not perfectly coordinated. But this song was okay.
The next one—“Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft”—was not. It was preciously phrased. It was killed with cutesy rubato. A little straightforwardness would have gone a long way.
Third came “Um Mitternacht,” that dark but ultimately affirmative song. A big question in the Rückert-Lieder at large—and in many Mahler pieces—is, Does the music transcend? Are you able to forget time and place? Are you able to forget the performers and think only about the music, or about things that are sparked by the music?
I could not, when it came to this “Um Mitternacht.” But the peroration was nicely clarion.
Best of the songs on Friday night was “Liebst du um Schönheit,” which was caressed in classic love-song fashion. It was well breathed, by one and all.
Then there was “Ich bin der Welt . . .” I think it could have been goosed up a half-step—or a whole one?—for Ms. Garanča. But her vocal control was superb. I could almost feel it in the diaphragm (my own). It’s easy to forget, looking at this gorgeous woman and hearing her beautiful voice, that she has developed a serious, first-rate technique.
The concertmaster, David Chan, made a sweet and savvy contribution. I will tell you something small, but possibly interesting: I like the thirds in the clarinets, toward the end, a little more Jewish. A little more Oriental.
Okay, let me ask, Did the music transcend? Could you forget the performers, could you forget time and place? I could not. Ever. I doubt the audience could either. Immediately after the song ended, the audience erupted in applause and bravos—as if they had heard an opera aria. On other occasions, the audience is too transported to applaud.
Now to the Bruckner Seventh. About the first two movements, I will report some generalities. The Met Orchestra made an excellent sound, in my opinion. A beautiful, sumptuous, enveloping sound. Maestro Nézet-Séguin also directs the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose sound is almost nonpareil. On Friday night, the Met band nearly matched them.
The maestro’s tempos were slow. And the phrasing was self-conscious. I could not forget the conducting, I could not forget the phrasing, as the maestro fondled the music. I wanted the music to unfold more naturally. I thought of a Parsifal (the Wagner opera) that Nézet-Séguin conducted at the Met. Often, the notes were “placed,” as on a table. They were “just so.”
I wanted the Bruckner Seventh to have more of a Classical spine, if you will. You don’t have to go the full George Szell—and I think he was a great conductor of this symphony—but some discipline is desirable. The music was so languid. It grew dull, to me. I could not discern the arc of the piece. I thought of a jellyfish, floating through the water . . .
But, but, but: Nézet-Séguin conducted the music, and the orchestra played it, with sincerity and love. This counts for a lot.
The third movement, the Scherzo, was more “normal,” if I may. It was reasonably conducted. I like more intensity out of it, and more sweep in the Trio, but this movement was good. So was the Finale, despite some smudges in the orchestra.
And let me end with this, and say it with emphasis: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was not mine. But he was the one on the podium. His view of the Seventh is not mine. But that he succeeded in bringing off his own view—with full conviction and a full heart—is unquestionable.