His Twitter bio describes a man of some scope: “Globe-trotter, loves Tennis, cats + people, Father of Rotterdam Phil, Philadelphia Orchestra, Orchestre Metropolitain Mtl… Future father of the MET :-)”
Turns out he’s got one more move: pianist.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra music director who also assumes official musical leadership of the Metropolitan Opera this September, has given only peeks of himself at the keyboard. But Wednesday night in chamber music with his own Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, he took on nothing less than the Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor, Opus 25. It’s a sprawling work, and a well-known one, too. For many listeners, it is the very definition of Brahms.
Nézet-Séguin’s appearance brought new visibility to these concerts, which started a couple of years ago at the College of Physicians and are put on by the college and musicians of the orchestra (three concerts are planned for next season, with artists and repertoire not yet set).
Mozart’s String Quintet No. 3 in C Major, K. 515, the only other piece on the program, started with a shaky moment or two, and you couldn’t say these five players from the orchestra (violinists Ying Fu and William Polk, violists Kerri Ryan and Burchard Tang and cellist Priscilla Lee) always had the tight immediacy of an established ensemble. But their authority grew. The interplay between Fu and Tang in the third movement was solid and stylish.
Nézet-Séguin prefaced his performance by telling the audience that he was “a pianist of occasion,” and that he had originally worked up and played the Brahms piece decades ago. Managing expectations was smart. As pianist, he hasn’t had the starry career of one of his predecessors at the orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach. And to be sure, there were fumbles. But they were minor ones, and not many.
The unusually long, 15-note line that opens the piece signaled his intentions. The tempo was on the luxurious side, and after sitting on the first note for a nanosecond, Nézet-Séguin unfolded the rest of the phrase by turning over notes one by one, looking for meaning. It did not lead in a straight line to the end of the phrase, the way, for instance, Artur Rubinstein thought about this music in his classic take with members of the Guarneri Quartet.
All along the way, Nézet-Séguin, Fu, Ryan, and Lee took generally careful tempos, but landed on some great moments: Lee’s plummy repeated triplets in the second movement that animated the spirit; the lithe, jagged militaristic string patter of the third; and, from the pianist, lovely instances of melody peaking above the texture.
Was it an interpretive decision or technical limitation that in both the climactic moments of the outer two movements the music never reached full boil? It’s hard to know. But when the musical authority in the room says to the audience, as this one did, that the occasion is about the joy and pride of playing chamber music with friends, it’s hard to argue.