The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra's arrival at the Proms with their musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin was popular, selling out seats and drawing a full arena crowd. There was an atmosphere of anticipation for a famously enigmatic conductor and a colourful programme. The concert didn’t disappoint with its marriage of Tchaikovsky and Wanger, and the cryptic Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major by Prokofiev.

Anna Caterina Antonacci with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic © Chris Christodoulou
Anna Caterina Antonacci with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic
© Chris Christodoulou

Tchaikovsky wrote his Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet in 1869, relatively early in his career – he then made the last revisions in 1880. Tonight the Rotterdam Philharmonic gave an enjoyable account of such a familiar piece. An expansive, gently ominous opening gave way to a snappy but lightweight Montagues and Capulets theme. The orchestra was tightly marshalled and blended well, but the love theme itself was not as full-bodied as it could be. It was more convincing on its second outing, especially as the first was followed by an odd moment of rhythmic vagueness. Nézet-Séguin recovered well from this though and shaped the overture through its fast-changing emotions to a weighty conclusion. The last dramatic chords don’t really add anything to the musical ‘plot’ of the overture – it could just as effectively fade away into a profound silence – but the rousing flourish was well captured.

Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder was well-chosen to follow. Soprano (and mezzo-soprano when she wants to be) Anna Caterina Antonacci was the soloist for a song cycle that dwelt on big themes – time, love and death. The work sets five poems for Soprano and orchestra. These poems were written by Mathilde Wesendock, with whom Wagner notoriously had some romantic involvement – though to what extent is the subject of argument.

Unusually for a singer of her considerable standing, Antonacci was below pitch on several occasions. However, there was much to applaud in her performance: strong diction, a deep vocal tone that comfortably rose above the orchestra, with a menacing edge at times, and a comfortable grasp of the rhythms. There was room for more extreme desperation or sorrow in Der Engel (The Angel) and Im Treibhaus (in the Hothouse) – but Antonacci’s subtle approach produced a world-weary wonderment. Anyone who has seen her on the operatic stage though, will feel there was some drama missing. This can surely be attributed to her using a score. The final movement, Träume (Dreams), was the most affecting. This was, along with Im Treibhaus, referred to by Wagner as a study for Tristan and Isolde. There are obvious shadows of the opera here, and they sometimes sound incongruous to the rest of the song cycle; for example strong motifs in the brass. But that aside, this was a sensitive orchestral performance that rightly let Antonacci have all the attention.

Despite the attractiveness of the Tchaikovsky and Wagner, Prokofiev’s fifth symphony was the most impressive performance of the evening. The Rotterdam Philharmonic were well-suited to the piece, which makes heavy use of percussion, including woodblock and snare drum, and develops several melodic themes between woodwind and strings while contrasting them with some more fragmented, uncertain sections. What the Symphony stands for is not agreed upon – commentators have doubted the composer’s assertion that it celebrated the ‘grandeur of the human spirit’. Its four movements do contain much optimism, with a sense of purpose that makes the 40 minutes pass quickly. But the third movement, adagio, is marked by a forlorn cry from the violins and throughout the symphony there increasingly lurks an ominous tap-tap-tapping of percussion. This grows more insistent until it becomes a furtive rhythm creeping up near to the brisk ending. The woodwind section stood out, especially a playful clarinet solo.

Prokofiev wrote his fifth symphony in 1944 Soviet Russia. In that context, there is much to be read into this varied, large-scale work that sometimes seems to mock 'grandeur' as much as celebrate it. But Nézet-Séguin's interpretation didn't need any reading into to work; it was satisfying and confident, if styled in a way that again left us feeling something was held back. The score was done justice however, summing up an evening which managed to explore the characters of three richly invidividual pieces with success.

****1