As I watched Yannick Nézét-Séguin conduct Shostakovich in the Royal Albert Hall, I found myself wondering if he has ever played the theremin. As the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra progressed through the dark, elusive chord shifts in the first movement of the Symphony no. 5 in D minor, Nézét-Séguin moulded figures in the air with his two hands, batonless, sculpting the shape of the music he wanted. The BRSO is not a theremin, of course, but it might as well have been, so closely and attentively did its hundred or so musicians follow the imagined creations that their conductor was conjuring out of thin air. Watch the strings and you see a collective shake of heads to mark each accent, together with such pinpoint accuracy that you could imagine it had been choreographed.

Yannick Nézét-Séguin © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Yannick Nézét-Séguin
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Nézét-Séguin is a conductor who trusts his orchestra. There’s no beating of time and at some points, he is content to be completely motionless while they get on with things. But most of the time, he is creating a visual model of the music, whether it’s with fluidity of motion for the smooth contours of a gentle nocturne, or energised leaps for the military passages. Only occasionally does he need to beckon to some particular section to cue it in or ask for a change of level. It’s an impressive sight.

In the case of the BRSO, it becomes obvious within moments that the trust is utterly well-founded. The togetherness of the strings results in extreme levels of clarity, matched to woodwind players who impart character to every note. Shostakovich uses a lot of dark notes in the lower registers of the harp which are often muddied by the rest of the orchestra: here, they rang clearly. You could pick out individual beats of drum and timpani rolls. I have often complained about orchestral sound turning to mush in the Royal Albert Hall’s cavernous acoustic: here was proof positive that a great orchestra is more than capable of taming it.

Yannick Nézét-Séguin and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Yannick Nézét-Séguin and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Shostakovich’s Fifth has many opportunities for conductor and orchestra to make an impact, most of them accompanied by tricky pitfalls. The studied calm of the first movement is at its most telling when the balance between instruments is perfect – as it was here – to bring out the harmonic progression. That same movement shifts in a heartbeat between delicacy and ponderous weight, returning to the same calm – but modified by an undertone of threat. Nézét-Séguin was outstandingly successful in bringing out the details with clarity but also with subtlety, never over-egging the pudding.

In the second movement, the melody was limpid and graceful, the demonic waltz not as wild as some I’ve heard but with plenty of lilt. The pianissimi were extreme, played with delicate evanescence. Each movement intensified towards the end. The third movement Largo was classical and elegant: what may have seemed restrained at the start expanded into full yearning by its end. The Allegro non troppo finale developed into a full-scale romp, to the broadest grins of the percussion section that you’ll ever see.

The first half of the concert, however, had proved that a great conductor with a great orchestra playing a great work by perhaps the greatest of composers can still result in something not to one’s taste. Nézét-Séguin and the BRSO’s playing of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 in D major was every bit as clear as their Shostakovich, a beautiful sound and a model of classical elegance and poise. Some will have loved it, but it was all rather too polished for me: I prefer my Beethoven with a more raw, passionate edge.

Not so the encore, “Dawn on the Moscow River” from Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina, another chance for the BRSO to turn that limpid sound into an enthralling, evocative experience. It left us with our heads full of the soul of Russia.