Concerts by Yannick Nézet-Séguin are never uneventful, but they can be disappointing. Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s charm and theatricality usually carry the performance along – and they did again this afternoon, but just enough to compensate for his lack of subtlety in the slower passages. The conductor’s previous performances of the other Brahms symphonies created high expectations for this final one in this cycle with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Symphony no. 3 in F major. Nézet-Séguin was terrific in the fortissimo passages, but his romantic sensitivity was missing. Based on my experience with Nézet-Séguin’s other Strauss and Wagner performances, I expected more tension in the slower passages. These parts lacked the necessary gripping intensity, flattening much of the emotional resonance in the music.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

The afternoon opened with Wagner’s love letter to Cosima. Quite the gesture on her Christmas Day birthday, the Siegfried Idyll played that morning in an intimate setting for his soon to be wife. The large orchestral layout did not contribute to the intimate mood of the piece. The undulating themes in both crescendo and diminuendo passages offered a pleasant awakening experience. The strings performed with great collective warmth. Since Nézet-Séguin has just started exploring Wagner, I imagine that he will be terrific as he masters the slow burning tension in Wagner’s softer passages.

Wagner was followed by Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder, which also carries a deep connection to a loved one. But contrary to Wagner, Strauss wrote the piece at the end of his life and they are full of melancholy, quite the opposite of Wagner’s awakening mood earlier. Dorothea Röschmann offered few impressive moments. Perhaps it was the uneven dynamic between a heavy-handed conductor and seemingly fragile soloist, but Ms Röschmann consistently missed Strauss emotional punctuation. Overall, her interpretation of Strauss’ powerful songs fell flat during the emotionally uprooting passages. The orchestra created an autumnal and ominous mood throughout all four songs: from the oscillating melody at the beginning of Frühling, the first song, to the recurrence of it at the end of Im Abendrot. Although it wasn’t Strauss, but his publisher who compiled the Lieder, Nézet-Séguin managed to bring out the melodic link between the bookending songs. Ms Röschmann’s highlight of the evening occurred during Beim Schlafengehen, the third song. When she sang “um im Zauberkreis der Nacht/tief und tausendfach zu leben”, her vocal restraint provided the soprano's most impressive moment that evening. But her voice felt too frail, nearly breaking, during Strauss' quieter moments, and the conductor waved his hand close in front of her face, which seemed impossibly distracting. Nézet-Séguin heavy-handed activity might have been a bit too much for Ms Röschmann, as she seemed ill at ease until the comfort of the audience's ovation at the end of her performance.

After the intermission, Nézet-Séguin delivered an underwhelming performance of Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F. Due to the conductor’s excellent performances of his other three symphonies over the past musical seasons, a palpable sense of excitement for this performance was in the air. Although Nézet-Séguin was terrific during the epic, energetic passages, he stumbled with the tension in the slow parts. The Andante with the woodwind section’s beautifully soft colours lacked in sustained tension. Nézet-Séguin could not maintain the subtle romantic build up within this second movement. This continued to be a problem in the Poco allegretto: the Rotterdam Philharmonic beautifully performed Brahms’ wonderfully Romantic melody, but the Canadian did not manage to evoke the brilliant romance hidden in the third movement, resulting in a final movement with a disappointing build up and release. Though in that last part, the conductor did bring out the orchestra’s enormous excitement, just as in the first movement Allegro con brio. Each section provided great energy and quality. The maestro was theatrical during the fortissimo finale of the last movement. Despite not being up there with Nézet-Séguin best Brahms, this Third Symphony still provided a decent amount of thrills for a Saturday afternoon.