Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mahler 10

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Orchestre Métropolitain

I will put aside the question of the new Orchestre Métropolitain recording of Mahler’s 10th Symphony (Deryck Cooke version) for the moment, to talk about Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducts.

Is Nézet-Séguin the most successful conductor Canada has ever produced?

That can be understood in terms of fame, a discography or the quality of one’s output, as understood through “skill” or “musicianship”. I just want to put that provocative thought out there before I go any further, because I think he’s more famous everywhere else than here (except perhaps Québec, which is after all an entirely different world from Anglophone Canada). He made something of an impact as a wunderkind here in Toronto with a flurry of appearances in 2006, but since that time, seems to conduct everywhere else.  And of course i answer the question with a resounding YES.


Not only do I love his work, but everyone I know who speaks of him tends to say the same thing. I made my first acquaintance with him at a production of Pelléas et Mélisande in Montréal back in 2001, an interpretation that I found wonderfully understated & sympathetic to the singers (oh my god that’s 14 years ago and he’s still just coming up to 40 years old). About ten years ago Nézet-Séguin came to Toronto where he conducted Gounod’s Faust for the Canadian Opera Company, the best thing about that production. And just a few weeks ago, he led his first of several performances of Verdi’s Otello for the Metropolitan Opera. Although I did not attend I’ve read reports including words such as “tremendous”, “exciting” “goosebumps” and “electrifying” from those who did. In the gossip of the CUNY opera listserv, Nézet-Séguin is touted as a possible successor to James Levine at the Met; but how could he fit it in, when he’s already conducting in Rotterdam, Philadelphia and l’Orchestre Métropolitain in Montréal? A look at his schedule is a reminder that he is a vigorous young man –like that other Montrealer Justin Trudeau whose recent election victory against older leaders was built first & foremost on legwork & long days—as he manages to lead at least four orchestras in different parts of the world.  They wouldn’t be asking him to conduct if he weren’t good. See for yourself.

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While perusing that amazing schedule, I noticed that Nézet-Séguin will be leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Mahler 10th come next spring. I wonder how it will compare to what I’ve been listening to incessantly on my car CD player, ATMA’s new release with l’Orchestre Métropolitain?

One of the reasons I left the CD in the car for the past few weeks was due to a bit of a struggle to find a way to do it justice, to ensure that I really found the right words to describe this interpretation. And so the long preamble about the conductor might seem to be an evasion, but in fact I wanted to make more of this review than just to talk about the recording.

So let me just say that, even with the attendant risk of dissuading Mahler freaks, I want to call this a tremendously original interpretation, one that is different from any Mahler 10 I’ve heard before. I’d been persuaded of the importance of Cooke’s version back in the 80s (when Cooke’s version was brand-new) when I first encountered Levine’s reading, at a time when I bought several of Levine’s recordings of Mahler (including this one) leading the Chicago Symphony. At the time my idea of Mahler was largely based on the ultra-romantic approach, especially the versions conducted by Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter. That may sound odd, how could Mahler be anything but romantic? The references risk a kind of circularity of argument. But I think Klemperer and Walter emphasize the lushness of Mahler, making the works longer by use of slower tempi and occasional rubati. More recently conductors have pushed their Mahler into a higher gear, playing it faster and with greater cohesion. I put Leonard Bernstein at the top of this heap of revolutionaries (given that I credit Walter, Mahler’s friend, with a kind of authenticity to his stylistic choices). Where the big developments in a symphony can seem to take an excruciatingly long time in Klemperer, they become breath-taking when done at Bernstein’s pace.

Nézet-Séguin takes us in Bernstein’s direction without being nearly so frenetic, without any signs of discomfort. The orchestra plays with clarity yes, but also with what sounds to my ears like pleasure. The opening movement builds to that unforgettable climax, but sounding brand-new in doing so as a kind of soft and vulnerable exposition, inexorable but absolutely truthful. There’s a simplicity to it that makes it sound brand new, and so much beauty in that discordant moment that I’ve never noticed before, less a scream than something emerging from deep within. The scherzo second movement erupts in a climax at it conclusion but without that sense of struggle one finds in the slower recordings, nor the stress I experience in Bernstein’s recordings caused by careening so quickly through the music. Not to be reductive, but oh my God, Nézet-Séguin and OM seem to play as fast as is possible while still sounding as though they’re having fun rather than losing control. This is a joy-ride and masterfully done, not a desperate mad dash with the fear of a mis-step. The passionate phrases in the third movement are not overly mystified, as they can be when the pacing is at the whim of a distant conductor taking everything a bit too slowly, the phrases emerging like a reticent confession. No, these emerge exactly as one would want, with a natural rhetoric to them, building to climaxes that feel totally organic, as though the big orchestra were a large athletic beast bounding through the forest at a happy gallop.

The darkness of the fourth movement, with its sudden contrasts of playful phrases hangs together for me better than any performance I’ve ever heard. It’s not morose nor overly introspective, just matter of fact, fatalistic in its surrender to what is on the page. As such we get an inexorable Mahler that moves from great moment to great moment, without suffering over itself, without all the self-congratulations of the older style conductors. The odd juxtapositions between disparate elements with which Mahler confronts us in this work? They’re simple and unanswerable in such a direct reading. Those magisterial closing phrases of the final movement feel that much more profound when the composer is given the benefit of the doubt: that he knew what he was doing.

This man is an amazing conductor and yet he is so young. Perhaps Nézet-Séguin will come back to Toronto sometime, perhaps to lead the TSO or conduct an opera for the COC: if he can find the time.

One can hope.

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