The overture-concerto-symphony programme is a structure nearly as old as symphonic concerts themselves. In their programme of Brahms, Schubert, and Strauss, Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose to invert the order somewhat, with the concerto comprising the entire first half of the concert.

Lars Vogt © Neva Nadaee
Lars Vogt
© Neva Nadaee

This reordering is fair enough when the concerto in question is Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, a monumental four-movement work lasting nearly an hour in duration. This performance, however, was certainly not ponderous, and Nézet-Séguin and soloist Lars Vogt presented a sleek, compact rendition that emphasized the work’s clarity rather than its grandeur. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the titanic first movement, which comprises nearly a third of the entire concerto. Vogt’s playing was remarkably clean, though that occasionally came at the expense of lyricism. He brought out the ebb and flow of the music brilliantly, and Nézet-Séguin’s orchestra responded with a glorious sweep of its own. I did, however, miss some of the sheer volume at the big climaxes of the movement.

Power certainly was not missing from Vogt’s rendition of the second movement, a turbulent scherzo. Vogt’s playing was impetuous and occasionally hard-driven, but the orchestra was unable to match his energy and volume. The third movement was a huge improvement, alternately searingly passionate and heartrendingly still. Particularly outstanding were the various orchestral solos, especially principal cellist Kristina Blaumane’s golden-toned solos worthy of any international soloist. Vogt is clearly a chamber musician of the highest order, and the amazing intimacy of the movement was the highlight of the evening. The fourth movement provided the perfect contrast, with sparkling and well-characterized playing from Vogt. There were occasional balance issues when Vogt pushed the orchestra to the very limits of soft playing, but it is always nice to see such musicians take risks in live performance. In any case, it was an astoundingly fresh performance of an old warhorse, featuring bravura performances from both soloist and orchestra.

However, it was Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony after the interval that truly allowed the orchestra to shine. Again adopting a leaner, cleaner approach than usual, Nézet-Séguin skillfully navigated the orchestra through the treacherous symphony with finesse. Particularly outstanding were the violins, who sounded positively luminous in the second movement. There were a few intonation slips towards the end and brass occasionally overwhelmed the strings, but overall it was yet another beautifully judged performance. The programme concluded with Strauss’ perennially popular Don Juan, an effective contrast to the subdued romanticism of the previous two works. Taken at breakneck speed, it was a boisterous, entertaining ride through Don Juan’s adventures. If the orchestra sounded justifiably tired at the end of the long programme, it was no matter – there could have been no more rousing way to conclude a highly enjoyable concert.