The Rotterdam Philharmonic’s two-week American tour was centred around a weekend residency in San Francisco, with pianist Hélène Grimaud in Brahms’ D minor concerto and Ravel’s G major concerto on successive evenings in addition to the fifth symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. A highly demanding schedule to sure, but under their musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Rotterdam Philharmonic proved that they can indeed stand with the very best.

Hélène Grimaud © Mat Hennek | DGG
Hélène Grimaud
© Mat Hennek | DGG

Canadian Nézet-Séguin has already proved himself to be one of the brightest stars in an increasingly crowded field of young conductors, and this performance did nothing to dispel the notion that he really can do no wrong. From the opening bars of Ravel’s infamously exposed “Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant” from Ma mère l’Oye, Nézet-Séguin proved a sensitive and fluid conductor, allowing the music to breathe and expand along with his excellent woodwind soloists. The “Laideronnette” movement dazzled in its colour and virtuosity, emphasizing Ravel’s piquant dissonances. Particularly breathtaking throughout the suite (and the concert, for that matter) was principal clarinetist Julien Hervé’s playing, which easily stands in good company with those of every major orchestra in the world. His woodwind colleagues proved excellent as well, but the strings tended toward thickness rather than transparency. There was no doubt that the string section was capable of the utmost sumptuousness though, as amply demonstrated in the final “Jardin féerique”.

The orchestra was joined by Hélène Grimaud for more Ravel, though the brash, jazzy idiom of the Piano Concerto in G major is miles away from Ma mère l’Oye. Grimaud is celebrated for her interpretation of the concerto, and her witty playing provided ample proof why. Grimaud dispatched Ravel’s intricate score with insouciant wit and clockwork precision, responding sensitively to the colourful orchestration. The exquisite second movement was one of the highlights of the concert, Grimaud achieving a mélodie-like lyricism that was utterly affecting in its restraint. The presto third movement was taken at a dazzling pace, with both soloist and orchestra at their virtuosic best. The orchestra and Nézet-Séguin yet again proved their affinity for Ravel, with a remarkable array of colour and utmost precision. There were times where the strings threatened to overwhelm the soloist, but Nézet-Séguin yet again proved a sensitive and effective collaborator. Grimaud and Nézet-Séguin offered a four-hands rendition of two Brahms waltzes as an encore, made even more enjoyable by their obvious delight in playing together.

Following the extrovert extravagances of Ravel’s music, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony seemed an oddly anti-climactic way to end the concert. With its expansive 45-minute structure and restrained optimism, it seems rather at odds with the 1944 Soviet Russian setting in which it was written. Nevertheless it proved an ideal fit for the orchestra, showing off the brilliant wind playing and assertive string sound in equal measure. Also outstanding was the brass section, especially in the treacherous trumpet solos played with laser-like intensity and flawless intonation. The extended first movement was presented with confident precision, clearly delineating Prokofiev’s sonata form.

The second movement scherzo showed the same tight ensemble, yet again featuring Hervé’s brilliant clarinet playing. The finale of the movement was blisteringly intense, pinning the audience to the backs of their seats. In contrast, the third movement lacked the atmospheric contrast needed for the tortured climax to be truly effective. This was more than made up for, though, in the athletic fourth movement, played once again with remarkable ensemble and ending the performance in a whirling vortex of energy. Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra offered an encore of Shostakovich’s Folk Festival from the Gadfly Suite, cannily showcasing yet again the sheer energy and precision of the orchestra and sending the audience home in a delightful mood.

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