In a standing tradition, The Met Orchestra concludes its season not in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera House, but front and center on stage at Carnegie Hall. At the helm was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, closing his inaugural season as music director. Friday’s performance, the last in the series, saw the orchestra in repertoire they wouldn’t otherwise get to traverse in the opera house: Mahler and Bruckner. Mahler’s compact Rückert-Lieder made for a brief first half, allowing ample time and space for the sprawling canvas of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

Elīna Garanča and Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Steve J. Sherman

Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča – who previously performed with this orchestra in the season-opening production of Samson et Dalila – served as soloist in the Mahler songs. Buzzing orchestrations brought to life the central metaphor of bees in “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder”, contrasted by the gracefulness of Garanča’s voice, fluid and flexible. Ever the master of orchestral effect even in this relatively early work, Mahler’s scoring for celesta at the beginning of “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” was quite striking; Garanča’s ensuing dialogue with the winds was lovely and untroubled. While not always entirely polished, the orchestra nonetheless offered Garanča sympathetic support, deftly balanced and in dutiful service of the text as communicated through the singer’s beautifully clear diction.

“Um Mitternacht” took matters into a darker realm of philosophical, late-night ruminations – something of a companion to the “Midnight Song” from the Third Symphony. Sighing winds pensively accompanied the titular phrase and a brass chorale near the end was arresting, with Garanča increasingly insistent. As the Rückert-Lieder don’t strictly constitute a song cycle, the performance order is open to interpretation. By placing the lighter “Liebst du um Schönheit” in the penultimate position, a welcome respite was had between the set’s two heavyweights. Ponderous lines in the English horn (Pedro R. Díaz) were a highpoint in “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, the song’s withdrawal from the material world often heart-wrenching.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Met Orchestra
© Steve J. Sherman

Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 in E major opened indeterminately – as the Bruckner symphonies do – with the material coalescing shortly thereafter into an arching, long-bowed subject in the strings, richly articulated. The movement’s climaxes were red-blooded but tautly controlled, drawing some animated conducting from Nézet-Séguin sans baton. The conductor maintained a keen sense of direction even in moments of Brucknerian stasis – in due course, rewarded with a rich lyricism. The coda rallied the forces for a muscular, resounding close, yet any glimmer of glory was soon left behind in the Adagio. The crown jewel of the symphony, it penetrated somber in songful depths, occasionally mellowed by the warmth of the Wagner tubas. Nézet-Séguin gradually scaled the dynamics to build towards the climax of crashing cymbals, yet soon after the textures thinned to chamber-like proportions, the solo instruments all but exposed.

The Scherzo was rather more straightforward and down to earth. Via vigorous and punctuated performance, Nézet-Séguin underscored a certain playfulness, albeit in somewhat tenuous balance with the calamitous. The texture of the finale’s opening recalled the work’s elemental beginnings, pointing towards a gracefully ornamented theme given in march-like procession. There was no apparent rush to the finish with the dramatic pacing one would expect from such a seasoned operatic ensemble: the thrills came less from destinations along the way but from the long journey itself. Following a rapturous ovation, Nézet-Séguin admitted there was no encore prepared – politely declining one enthusiastic audience member’s suggestion to improvise! – but instead offered a fascinating tidbit that history had been made, with this being the Met Orchestra’s first performance of a Bruckner symphony.