Yannick Nézet-Séguin has resisted specialist identification with any one school of music, but my experience with him since his tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra began suggests he’s Austro-Germanic at heart. He seems particularly adept at drawing a through-line from late Romanticism into the modern era, showing how ideas from the past paved the way for the defining music of the early 20th century. That acumen was on display as he led a performance of Richard Strauss’ too-rarely heard landscape tone poem, Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony).

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

I always find it instructional to consider this work from the strange perspective of its composition history. Strauss was inspired by Nietzsche’s essay The Antichrist, and by a belief that Germany needed to move away from devout religiosity and into a more spiritual connection with the natural world. (That’s a fusion of Romantic ideals and the modern ethos if I’ve ever heard one.) Yet the music he composed for this single-movement symphony bespeaks the kind of shimmering, ethereal sounds that one regularly associates with divine ecstasy. Are we meant to regard ourselves as the gods of nature, or to see God in nature?

Nézet-Séguin has certainly sussed out every allusion to the natural world that Strauss embedded in the score. The percussion alone, working with the frenzy of a demolition crew, evoked thunder, lightning, wind and rain with wall-shaking efficacy. But nothing was simply in the service of bombast. The performance shaped a narrative that aligned with Nietzsche’s God-is-dead theories and Wagner’s musical assertion of the supremacy of Man.

The foreboding tension of Night suggested God declaiming from on high, but as the music progressed, so did a sense of awakening. The offstage horns heard in The Ascent could well be interpreted as the dawning of an independent consciousness, and The Alpine Pasture gave weight and depth to folk music in the way that compositions of another era might have valued religious insinuations. The music grew in restless agitation throughout the long middle-section, leading to the explosive Thunderstorm; from there, familiar themes from the opening sections returned, but from a different perspective. No longer was God speaking – instead, humankind was claiming its sovereign right. Nézet-Séguin conveyed it all with absolute mastery.

The Strauss alone would have made the concert a worthwhile evening, and in many ways, the opening performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor felt like little more than a curtain-raiser. I find it a profoundly uninteresting piece: the opening movement contains too many ideas and the second too few, and the concluding Allegro scherzando is most notable for inspiring the Frank Sinatra torch song Full Moon and Empty Arms. The banal melody of the Adagio sostenuto also appears in the cheesy 1970s ballad All By Myself.

Soloist Haochen Zhang brought the goods in terms of technique, and he displayed a keen sense of Romantic shape and line, although his sound occasionally disappeared into the overall orchestral texture when the forces played at full tilt. Although he is more than a decade into an international career, he strikes me as an artist not yet fully formed, but definitely one worth watching.

Zhang will appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra during its tour of China next month. On October 4, Verizon Hall hosted a delegation of Chinese dignitaries, whom Nézet-Séguin acknowledged at the conclusion of the Rachmaninov. Eschewing the usual Schubert and Debussy, Zhang played a lovely, lilting Chinese folk song as his encore.