Mention Anton Bruckner and the clichés tumble forth: Wagner acolyte, cathedrals in sound, brass chorales opening the gates of heaven. His symphonies are on the grandest scale, barely contained even within the acoustical barn of the Royal Albert Hall. Yet what impressed most in the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s Prom last night was not Bruckner the epic architect, but Bruckner the chamber musician. Under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s batonless direction, the quieter, more introverted passages of the Fourth Symphony – which the composer himself dubbed the “Romantic” – emerged as intimate pillow talk, whispered conversations that revealed another side to the Austrian's personality.

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

Nézet-Séguin is clearly adored by his orchestra, whom he leaves as Chief Conductor during the course of this European tour, although their relationship will continue “as uncle instead of father” as he described it in a brief post-concert tribute to his players. The orchestra hangs on his every phrase, his every gesture, which range from fluid horizontal strokes, as if painting an imaginary landscape, to dramatic frozen poses to arms urgently stretched wide in a huge embrace. The Rotterdam players returned that hug with added interest.

From the poised opening horn call over Bruckner’s trademark tremolando strings, this was set to be a poetic account, unhurried, affectionate. Nézet-Séguin, making excellent eye contact, encouraged his players to listen attentively to each other, resulting in beautiful exchanges between buttery flute and misty-eyed oboe. Knees flexed, the Canadian conductor pointed the symphony’s dance rhythms balletically. The third movement Ländler was perhaps a little too coy, blushing preciously amid the boisterous hunting horn theme of the Scherzo, but it percolated pastoral charm.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The grandeur we expect from Bruckner was still there, it’s just that Nézet-Séguin never pressed on the pedal too heavily. Eight double basses, ranked along the rear, provided a solid foundation for a string sound which is warm, but clear. The woodwind blend is lightly roasted rather than rich. Although not always perfectly together, the Rotterdam heavy brass resisted bludgeoning the rest of the orchestra into orbit, while the horns’ mellow halo was never coarse. The strings dug deeply, unafraid to show emotion. A tender, heart-on-sleeve Fourth.

Before the interval, Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major also emerged afresh under the hands of Yefim Bronfman. It had its manic, head-banging moments, for sure, which were delivered with punch and flair, but it was the poetry Bronfman and Nézet-Séguin found in the concerto’s opening sections which made one listen with new ears – quite an achievement in an old war horse like Liszt 2. The clarinet’s initial statement, which plants the seed for the entire, single-movement work, was caressed, echoed by Bronfman’s lyrical replies.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Yefim Bronfman take a bow © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Yefim Bronfman take a bow
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The brass took control Liszt’s bombastic central section while the the finale was an entertaining game of cat and mouse between orchestra and pianist and, Bronfman’s glissandos helping him evade capture. For an encore, he and Nézet-Séguin joined forces, four hands at one keyboard, to tease out one of Mendelssohn’s charming Venetian Boat Songs. With his move from “Manhattan on the Maas” to Manhattan, New York, to take up his new appointment Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, Nézet-Séguin left us with an operatic palate cleanser, beautifully hushed strings caressing the prelude to Act 3 of La traviata. Farewell, perhaps, but not adieu.

****1