The famous “Philadelphia Sound” has long been particularly effective in the works of certain composers. The velvety cocoon of strings helps Rachmaninov and Sibelius no end, at least in the right hands, like the Orchestra’s long-serving music directors, Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. But Bruckner, a personal favourite of new leader Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the composer with whose works he made his name? Bruckner, whose symphonies have never really been associated with this orchestra, so much so that there is a notable hole in its vast recorded legacy? Can that bright, immaculately blended sound, dominated by violins and rooted in pulsating bass, really work in pieces that rely on precise registrations of instruments, arranged in “tiers” of sound?

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

Well, yes and no. In this performance of Bruckner's Symphony no. 9 in D minor at Carnegie Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra played with full commitment and a complete willingness to follow wherever Nézet-Séguin led. “The Sound”, anchored firmly by the double basses and topped by very clean brass, allowed Nézet-Séguin to conjure glitzy barrages of noise in the climaxes of the first and third movements. The consuming brightness worked well with Nézet-Séguin’s overall conception, which was much less dark and doubting than one might hear from many conductors. And the sheen allowed those moments when Bruckner’s music reaches for the heavens (or when the heavens reach down) to sparkle with Grace. Yet that richness curdled quickly, as Nézet-Séguin applied it unrelentingly, rather than picking and choosing his moments. The inner play of parts, brilliantly deconstructed by Manfred Honeck with the New York Philharmonic a few weeks ago, tended to get lost. Bruckner’s own distinctive timbres couldn’t make it past the first violins.

The bigger problem lay in what that “Sound” was asked to do. There was the occasional moment of brilliance here and there, but I never felt that this performance cohered. In Bruckner’s long paragraphs, it’s in the relationships between tempi that great performances are made. While Nézet-Séguin at times showed a genuine talent for making his chosen speeds seem natural, too much felt arbitrary, too distant from the central, core rhythms of time that each movement implies. In an interpretation that paid more attention to colour at a given moment than to overall structure, this really counted in the Adagio. A few conductors, Sir Simon Rattle most prominently, are now willing to play four-movement completions of a work Bruckner left unfinished at his death. Nézet-Séguin stuck with the traditional three, which is hardly unreasonable, but sketched a very finished view of it. Plenty have taken this approach over the years and made it work. But this time around the third movement, treated as both a finale and a precursor to Mahler’s Ninth, was taken so slowly that the intensity and momentum that had marked the performance up to that point simply seeped away.

It was a double pity because Nézet-Séguin had been so restrained in Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Here he found a very satisfying flow, allowing the music to breathe but also moving it along. That sound worked better when just reduced to the strings, too, rumbling down low and glittering up high. And there was, somehow, a more conscious modernism here than in the Bruckner, where Nézet-Séguin had skittered over wrenching dissonances and profound harmonic shocks in pursuit of smoothness.

Smoothness was also the dominant trait in Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 1, which made up a trio of “Bs” for the evening. Soloist Lisa Batiashvili clearly has a good relationship with Nézet-Séguin, and they communicated wonderfully here, picking up rhythms and emphases with ease. Witty woodwinds helped with the generally chatty feel. Batiashvili has an attractive, bird-like tone, and while other violinists might play up either the rougher edges or the folksier charms of this music, she enveloped it with a soothing, calm approach. This is a partnership that should blossom in years to come.