Anton Bruckner believed that God himself dictated his composition style. Yannick Nézet-Séguin allegedly dreamed of becoming pope before he turned to a life of orchestral conducting. Put the two together and you have a match made in Heaven – or at least at High Mass. Bruckner’s symphonies have been a highlight of Nézet-Séguin’s tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra and he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to bring order and shape to these beautiful, reverent and sometimes unruly creatures. In the penultimate concert of this subscription season, he achieved perhaps his greatest feat yet in this repertoire, by satisfactorily structuring a complete vision for the composer’s unfinished Ninth Symphony.

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© George Etheredge

Bruckner succumbed to the “curse of the Ninth”, working on his final statement until the last day of his life but leaving only sketches of the concluding movement. Although multiple musicologists have offered orchestrations of their own to complete the symphony, the composer himself had another suggestion: he supposedly believed that orchestras could use his choral Te Deum to bring the piece home. Scored for vocal quartet and large choir, the move draws inevitable comparisons to Beethoven’s Ninth, albeit from a more devout, less humanistic perspective. Bruckner dedicated his Ninth to “the beloved God”, and the Te Deum recounts the faithful prostrating themselves before a higher being – combining the works would make perfect sense in the mind of a committed Catholic who felt he would soon account for himself in the next world.

Nézet-Séguin fused the Ninth, Te Deum and the motet Christus factus est into a single, evening-length work performed without intermission (with hardly a pause). If you ever wondered what the Symphony of a Thousand might sound like if Bruckner wrote it, this performance gave a clue. Grandeur mixed with piety, sincerity with opulence. The Philadelphia Symphonic Choir brought an appropriate delicacy to Christus factus est, balancing dynamics from a prayerful whisper to a climactic roar, giving full voice to an expression of fate and doubt. Nézet-Séguin layered in the slashing tremolos of the Ninth’s first movement before the choral sound completely faded, injecting a jagged edge into this orchestra’s famously pretty string tone. 

From within the cathedral of sound he extracted ravishing details, like the striking wind choirs that punctuate the movement, that would shame anyone who claims that Bruckner lacked an ear for subtle orchestration.

The Scherzo proved almost overwhelming in its manic energy, with woodwinds and brass taking on a slyly sarcastic tone and pizzicato strings sounding like jittery heartbeats. Tutti passages gave the sense of real expressive intensity – perhaps even a race against the clock. This hard-charging style extended into the Trio and contrasted nicely with the Adagio, where Nézet-Séguin showed that he wasn’t afraid to whisper when needed. He elongated phrases, isolated solos within the fabric of the orchestra (Patrick Williams’ flute was especially stunning) and created a sense of repose that made the few emotional outbursts of this movement sound especially jarring.

The Te Deum got off to a somewhat rocky start, with slightly squally singing from soprano Elza van den Heever and tenor Sean Panikkar, and nearly inaudible contributions from Michelle DeYoung, whose high-lying mezzo lacks the center of gravity needed for the work’s alto line. Nézet-Séguin turned the dial up to its highest setting and mostly left it there; I would have liked more dynamic variety between the orchestra, choir and soloists. But there were moments to cherish as the performance went along. Once settled, van den Heever offered stunning high pianissimos and Ryan Speedo Green let his secure, beautiful tone ring out in the too few opportunities for bass. The final In te, Domine, speravi sounded appropriately exultant. Bruckner almost certainly would approve.

This review has been amended to correct a misattribution regarding the flautist