Magic is happening in Rotterdam! Yannick Nézet-Séguin led his Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra on a journey of Russian temperaments. Under his baton, it performed superlatively as romance radiated in Tchaikovsky; hairs were raised in Shostakovich with an incisive Truls Mørk in the Second Cello Concerto, and upbeat rhythms and optimistic melodies from Prokofiev evoked the most cheerful of memories. With the same programme on tour later this season, they are sure to enthrall audiences in Vienna and Switzerland. Impressively, Principal Conductor Nézet-Séguin matched his predecessor Valery Gergiev with such high quality in Russian repertoire.

Nézet-Séguin opened with a sublime rendition of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini. From the beginning of this symphonic poem, the Canadian conductor slowly built intensity in the strings, layering a lush texture elevating the piece’s romance to stunning heights. “Mighty Mouse” (as Joyce Didonato has nicknamed him) fascinated with complete control over his highly expressive, but authentic physicality. The whirlwind of flames in which Francesca and her brother-in-law lover Paolo find themselves in Dante’s Inferno vividly came to life through the bewitching wind section, arousing the lovers' feverish entangled passion.

A charming moment occurred when Nézet-Séguin held his hand flat in front of the mouth, indicating the shock when the lovers are caught in the act by Francesca’s husband. With such theatrical but effective conducting, he knows how to charm his orchestra into superlative sound: brooding brass, tempestuous strings, horns brightly glistening with silver. Julien Hervé disarmed with his vulnerable clarinet solo, all the while in a current of pizzicato rhythms, creating both gripping and seductive moments. Nézet-Séguin set the bar high with this decadent, though refined Tchaikovsky, and he sustained that high quality throughout the programme.

As soon as Truls Mørk opened Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 2 in G major, an agonizing tension permeated the auditorium. Unflinchingly, the Norwegian cellist moved through the seemingly meandering melody channelling the Russian’s gut-wrenching desolate mood in the opening Largo. Mørk masterfully sustained a highly charged, crisp tension that kept this listener spellbound. The concerto doesn’t provide many moments for flashy virtuosity, so it was impressive how he grasped the attention with his slow-burning, but incisive contributions. With great effect, the xylophone offered shrilling accents, while the strings amplified Shostakovich’s ominous, repressed tone.

In the relatively short second movement Allegretto, seemingly untempered energy took over. Syncopated rhythms crashed into jazzy vibes. Underneath it all, with impressive subtlety, Pieter Nuytten devilishly mocked on his bassoon. Always in tune with Mørk, Nézet-Séguin deftly disentangled the complex rhythms never letting the scherzo spiral out of control. It was a brief but bubbly respite from Shostakovich’s gloom and doom.

The final Allegretto allowed for the percussion section to show what they had in store. Mørk never allowed the piece to sound longwinded or nagging. On the edge of my seat, I listened as Shostakovich’s music withdrew into a horribly lonely, but noble death as the music faded out on Mørk’s cello.

After the intermission, the evening turned into one great party. Following Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 7 in C sharp minor alleviated the mind with its happy-go-lucky liveliness. In his final symphony, Prokofiev cites earlier works as if melancholic, though with the more cheerful of recollections. In the opening Moderato, swelling celli set in as if a spring awakening. A sweeping Romantic mood reminded of Tchaikovsky earlier. It felt whimsical, but nonetheless genuinely optimistic.

The second movement recalls Prokofiev’s waltz from the ball in his opera War and Peace. Nézet-Séguin produced the lighthearted tempo with his trademark verve. In the Andante espressivo segments from Prokofiev’s incidental music to Yevgeny Onegin resonated. Oboe and cor anglais contrasted their subtle timbres, while playful rhythms generated invigorating momentum. Brass provided generous warmth in their closing, all leading to an expression of Prokofiev's optimism.

Nézet-Séguin chose Prokofiev’s original ending. The French-Canadian’s inexhaustible energy enlivened the experience. As if being swept away in 19th century Romanticism, this piece electrified the listener with its vivacious currents as well as some melancholic passages that created warm contrasts. Other than his Classical Symphony, I’ve haven’t enjoyed a Prokofiev symphony this much.  

There are only two more seasons with Nézet-Séguin at the helm of this fiery orchestra. Their synergy produces a sound to behold, so a Sunday matinee at the Doelen is definitely worth a trip to Rotterdam.