For the past three decades I have lived in New York, I hardly recall any other occasion when the Vienna Philharmonic totally avoided the great German-Austrian tradition – at the very core of its history – during its annual visit to Carnegie Hall. Returning after a Covid-induced hiatus, the orchestra and Valery Gergiev (the initially announced conductor), proposed a series of three performances sandwiching an evening of standard French and Russian repertoire between two others exclusively devoted to Russian music. When Yannick Nézet-Séguin – in New York to prepare the new production of Don Carlos at the Metropolitan Opera – was asked to take over the performances on very short notice, he graciously accepted to keep all three programmes intact. At least the Saturday night selection seemed to have suited well the interests of a conductor that is, nevertheless, ready to tackle – with his trademark aplomb, energy and charm – any score placed in front of him.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

From the emergence of the soft, syrinx-like flute notes in Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune an unconstrained musical illustration of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem – the premonition of a great musical evening was somehow palpable. Nézet-Séguin’s pace in rendering this ten-minute masterpiece was unhurried; every detail was caressed with utmost delicacy and nostalgia. The sound tapestry had the qualities of chamber music, even if the score asked for a full orchestral apparatus.

Although all three works presented are anchored by literary and mythological sources, none is easily identifiable as programmatic, instead sharing a consistent musical universe where atmosphere and colour are more important than rigorous construction and motivic development. The sound was both opulent and subtle and crescendos were truly organic in Ravel’s second suite from Daphnis et Chloé. Dialogues involving woodwinds had a wonderful fluency, despite several entrances not being sufficiently precise. As in Debussy’s Prélude, the Arcadian world evoked here brought forward reminiscences of two wall-size Matisse canvases – La Musique and La Danse – conceived in 1910. The music had the same liberating qualities as the oil paintings, flaunting rules by using unconventional colours and harmonies, blurry demarcations and shifting rhythms. Nézet-Séguin underlined all of them and the orchestra followed his indications with abandon.

The Vienna Philharmonic play in Carnegie Hall
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

In an evening exploring the myths of the Mediterranean and Eastern worlds, Rimsky-Korsakov’s magnetic and mysterious Scheherazade took its rightful place, and the conductor pointed out the debt that the two French composers owe to Russian music. Heeding Rimsky-Korsakov’s unsurpassed gift for timbral balancing, Nézet-Séguin never exaggerated the power of any statement or overstated rubatos. The balance between segments was judicious with a painterly second movement and a stormy Finale. Overall, the rendition was imbued with warmth while – more propulsive than meditative – maintaining a high level of tension. As in the first half, concertmaster’s Volkhard Steude’s solos were superb. Often repeated, his Scheherazade leitmotif seemed to acquire each time new valences as if meant to rekindle Sultan Shahriar’s (and ours) interest. Other soloistic moments, such as Sebastian Breit’s oboe in the second movement, were just as exquisite.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Although Nézet-Séguin has conducted the Vienna Philharmonic before, this Carnegie Hall performance proved again that insufficiently rehearsed performances could still spark rewarding and powerful renditions, even if we don’t fully comprehend exactly how! As Mallarmé – whose poetry was a source of inspiration for both Debussy and Ravel – wrote, “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance.”