Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s love for Brahms is well-documented, which makes the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s season opening at the Concertgebouw all the more fitting. In a program of Brahms’s First and Second Symphonies, they showed once again why they’re an orchestra to be reckoned with.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

The first thing that I noticed at the concert was that the positioning of the orchestra was different from what we are used to; the double basses were in the middle at the back, then came the woodwinds and the strings all surrounded the conductor. The timpani was on the right, a singular percussionist who played excellently all evening. With regards to the sound, the placement of the musicians worked very well because it was so balanced. Yannick Nézet-Séguin used no score yet guided the orchestra in an exhilarating performance.

The Symphony No.1 is a beautiful work that seems to reflect Brahms’s growth as a composer. It starts off stately and solemn, but slowly the orchestra is allowed to be more free and perhaps optimistic. The end is like a release, perhaps Brahms’s release from his admiration of Beethoven and conviction he could never write such a good symphony. The Rotterdam Philharmonic dived into the symphony head first, egged on by Nézet-Séguin. The performance was fiery and powerful, yet there was a transparency and clarity that reappeared in the performance of the Second Symphony. Nézet-Séguin is of course known for his big gestures and animated body language, which really does lead to added energy in the orchestra – but above all his interpretation of Brahms was precise and detailed. Every instrument could be heard at every point in time, the solo of the concertmaster (Marieke Blankestijn) was not only extraordinary in its beauty but also in how it soared above the rest of the orchestra. The strings were on absolute top form, with the cellos delivering some notes of bone-chilling beauty.

After such an awe-inspiring first half, I have to admit I returned to the concert hall thinking that there had to be something I could criticize about the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s performance of the Second Symphony. But no, it was again fantastic and perhaps the most dynamic I’ve ever heard them play. The differences in tone, tempi and volume are precise and spot on, while offering a new interpretation of the symphony. The first movement in particular was stunning, with the principal theme still being stuck in my head. The woodwind section was on fine form, with the first flutist delivering some magical melodies.

Brahms’s music is of that rare quality where it allows you to drift off into a dream world, not because it’s boring or serves as background music, but because it seems to incite the imagination. What made these performances of the first two Brahms symphonies so good is that not only do they allow this, they would also suddenly snap you back into this world. Not only because of the sudden volume increase at times, but because the sheer beauty of the music was able to truly come to the fore. Brahms wrote some insanely stunning melodies that can sometimes get buried in the rest of the music, but Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic did not allow that to happen.

For me personally this concert has once again reaffirmed why I find the Rotterdam Philharmonic the most impressive orchestra in The Netherlands. Performances of Brahms symphonies can be too stately, verging on boring, they can focus too much on grand gestures and less on the nuances and beautiful melodies of the works and so performing them this well is quite a feat. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has continued to help the orchestra grow to great heights after Valery Gergiev’s departure and I for one am very excited to see what their next highlight will be.

****1