Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Debussy and Prokofiev
15 Feb 2019
Menuet antique (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, op. 100
Yannick Nézet-Séguin in conversation with Albrecht Mayer
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was born in Montreal, Canada in 1975, made his conducting debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010 with music by French and Soviet composers: the programme included works by Hector Berlioz, Olivier Messiaen and Sergei Prokofiev. Nézet-Séguin, who not only heads the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orkest, but will also take over as the head of the New York Metropolitan Opera from September 2018, follows a similar direction in these concerts.
The first part of the programme features a key work of French Impressionism: La Mer by Claude Debussy. In every orchestral colour imaginable, the score, described by its composer as “three symphonic sketches”, reflects the impressions of nature that Debussy gathered including while on holiday on the English coast of the Channel. Completed in 1905 in Eastbourne, it was premiered in Paris in the same year by the Orchestre Lamoureux under the musical direction of Camille Chevillard. La Mer is one of the masterpieces of Impressionism because the score, despite its figurative titles, positions itself in a sophisticated manner on the borderline between programme and absolute symphonic music.
The counterpoint in these concerts to the iridescent tones of Debussy is a composition that is committed to the aesthetic maxims of so-called “Socialist Realism”: Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, which was premiered in Moscow on 13 January 1945. This work not only meant the composer’s return to the symphonic form after almost 15 years, but also earned Prokofiev the Stalin Prize 1st Class. The composer himself stated that with his Fifth Symphony he wanted to “sing of the free, happy man, his mighty power, his chivalry, and his purity of spirit”. The work’s premiere, which was temporarily interrupted by anti-aircraft artillery salvoes from the Kremlin, made a more unequivocal impression on the pianist Sviatoslav Richter: “The Fifth Symphony,” said Richter, contains “time and history, the war, the motherland and victory”. About Debussy, however, Richter said that in his music there were “no personal feelings. It is stronger than nature itself. If you look at the sea, you will not have as strong a sensation as when listening to La Mer”.
Craftsmanship, Nature, Politics . . .
Orchestral Works by Ravel, Debussy and Prokofiev
Music and craftsmanship – Maurice Ravel’s Menuet antique
When asked how he composed, Maurice Ravel once replied, “Like a bricklayer building a wall.” He first wrote “one note, then a second and perhaps a third. Then I try to find out what will come of it when I juxtapose them, combine them, separate them”. His trowel was the piano, without which, in his opinion, “no new harmonies could be invented”. When the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams showed Ravel some of his orchestral scores in 1907 and asked for his opinion, he received the unexpected advice to write a “little minuet in the style of Mozart”. Ravel also composed simple piano pieces himself occasionally in order to test his compositional skills and command of clear formal proportions by dispensing with dazzling orchestral colours. Written as a piano piece in 1895 and orchestrated by the composer in 1929, the Menuet antique proves that Ravel was by no means only interested in mere stylistic exercises. The powerful head motif, which begins with a dissonant upbeat over a descending four-note bass line, makes it clear that Ravel was already going his own way in this early composition.
Music and nature – Claude Debussy’s La Mer
Claude Debussy reacted irritably when the term “Impressionism”, which was used for the first time in 1874 in connection with a painting by Claude Monet, was applied to his music. “Only journalists and experts call it that,” he had his literary alter ego, the self-styled “anti-dilettante” Monsieur Croche, proclaim. It was less the fear that his compositions might be compared with paintings than an aversion to rash categorizations that made Debussy protest vehemently against all “isms”.
Debussy’s La Mer was premiered in Paris in 1905. Concerned that critics might assign the work to the category of Classical and Romantic genres, Debussy described the composition as “three symphonic sketches” – a clear case of understatement, since the large forces and colourful orchestration of the work alone certainly do not convey the impression of casually tossed-off compositional drafts.
A mysterious murmur in the low strings, harp and timpani form the starting point of the first movement, until the entrance of the high strings and woodwinds in the fifth bar give the impression of the twilight before dawn. Later on, Debussy portrays it using musical means which are equally evocative, like the waves glistening in the light. A passage introduced by the low strings and horns also marks a clear thematic caesura, until in the closing section the initial contrast between light and darkness gives way to an orchestral depiction of glaring daylight.
Because of its mercurially fleeting character, the middle movement is sometimes referred to as the scherzo of the work, perhaps not exactly what the composer intended. One of the appealing things about La Mer is the fact that the composition also plays with characteristics of the symphony and programme music in order to avoid classification into traditional genres. That becomes particularly clear in the third and final movement. In conjunction with motivic and thematic reminiscences of the first two sections, its thematic dualism fulfils the expectations of a finale, only to circumvent them at the same time. Thus, the powerful, at times adversarial surges of this movement do not result from the two previous sections but rather form a counterweight to them. Nevertheless, a synthesis is achieved at the close, when Debussy combines the two divergent themes of the movement in a grand, almost apotheotically intensified conclusion.
Music and politics – Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony
“For my part, I am not interested in politics; art has nothing to do with it,” Prokofiev wrote in his autobiography, which was not published in its entirety until after his death. That was not only an obvious contradiction to the opinion of Joseph Stalin, who of course had different ideas about the contribution of art to the development of a socialist society. It was also a late attempt at personal vindication. The young enfant terrible of modern music, who was spoiled by success early on, had avoided the cruel aftermath of the October Revolution through lengthy stays in America and Western Europe. Not until 1927 did he undertake his first concert tour to the “intimidating and terrifying” USSR (Prokofiev). The success of this tour was the prelude to more frequent and longer visits: the composer established contacts with the cultural elite and prepared for his return to the homeland. In 1936 the musician settled in the Soviet Union, with a teaching appointment at the Moscow Conservatory in his pocket. Provided with privileges which usually only the highest party members enjoyed, Prokofiev was initially able to devote himself to composition unhindered for the most part. When the cold war began, however, the Stalinist (non-)cultural authorities increasingly banned performances of several of his works which appeared to be rooted in the “decadent, pathological and perverted” culture of Western countries.
The Fifth Symphony – composed in 1944 and premiered during the last year of the war, with Prokofiev himself conducting – had still brought him “official party recognition as the most important and highly regarded composer in the Soviet Union” (Thomas Schipperges). In 1945 the composer commented on the thoughts that had preoccupied him during his work on the Fifth: “In the Symphony I wanted to sing the praises of a free and happy man, his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul.”
Prokofiev based the main theme of the first movement, which is initially pastoral in nature, on one of the symmetrical scales typical of Russian art music since Rimsky-Korsakov. But how different this theme sounds in the coda: menacing tremolos in the percussion are heard in its variant, which is augmented with triplets, permanently darkening the idyllic mood created thus far. The scherzo also takes on sinister characteristics during the repeat of its opening section: the middle part contrasts the fleeting scherzo theme with a strange, blatantly obviously phrased eight-bar passage as the upbeat to a tongue-in-cheek sensuous melody. When it returns, the scherzo theme sounds as though it is in a distorting mirror. The Adagio is a treasure trove of the acerbic melodic surges that were Prokofiev’s particular specialty. Despite contrary interpretations, the last movement of the Fifth Symphony does not follow the theme of “through darkness to the light” which has prevailed since Beethoven. The return to thematic material from the first movement clearly brings the symphony full circle to cyclic coherence. But the “fair theme” (Prokofiev) on which the composer based the finale escalates to a carnivalesque orgy at the close, the subversive undertone of which can scarcely be ignored. Amid the delirious joy at winning the war, the Politburo apparently had no ear for such sounds: Prokofiev was awarded the Stalin Prize, first class, for his Fifth Symphony in January 1946.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin studied piano, conducting, composition and chamber music in his native city of Montreal as well as choral conducting in Princeton; he continued his training with Carlo Maria Giulini. Since August 2018, he is music director of the Metropolitan Opera New York, after previously leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra for ten years. Yannick Nézet-Séguin remains at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra and continuous as artistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, where he has served since 2000. In Europe he has worked with major orchestras including the Staatskapelle Dresden and Berlin, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose principal guest conductor he was from 2008 until 2014. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has also achieved great success as an opera conductor, with Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Don Carlo and La traviata at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and Janáček’s The Makropulos Case and Puccini’s Turandot at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. He made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in 2008 with Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and returned with Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 2010 and 2011. In 2012 he made his debut at London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden with Dvořáks Rusalka. The conductor has received numerous awards, among them the Royal Philharmonic Society Award and the National Arts Centre Award from the Canadian government. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Quebec in Montreal (2011), the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (2014) and Westminster Choir College of Rider University (2015). His first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in October 2010 with works by Messiaen, Prokofiev and Berlioz. He last conducted the orchestra in October 2017 in Brahms’s German Requiem.