EIF 2014 review: Rotterdam Phil & Yannick Nézet-Séguin

First published in The Herald on 30 August, 2014

Three days, two great Dutch orchestras in Edinburgh. And – whisper it – this performance from Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Rotterdam band was lither, more impassioned and frankly more exciting than the two concerts given earlier this week by their august Amsterdam counterparts. The sound might not be as polished, but the Rotterdam Phil’s capacity for collective surge and sway is thrilling. If only the repertoire had been swapped; I would have loved to hear this orchestra let loose in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.

There was just one work on the programme last night: Mahler’s deeply personal, deeply troubled Sixth Symphony. It’s the most unremittingly bleak of all the composer’s symphonies – an hour and a half of struggle, a portrait of a man repeatedly trying and ultimately failing to pick himself up from the brink. Not for nothing did it earn its subtitle of the Tragic.

Nézet-Séguin has described the work as a journey “pretty much darkness into darkness”, yet his account last night never plunged us into the true depths. The Quebecois conductor is all energy all of the time, and he drove a bright, crisp, animated Mahler Six – a young man’s Mahler Six, maybe.

The first movement was a blur of brazen horns and searing strings and the full-throttle attack never really dissipated. The Scherzo (performed second; the order isn’t fixed) was sharp but never convincingly grim; the Andante felt easy, almost relaxed; the finale hurtled along with irrepressible force but never reached absolute despair. But this was still an exhilarating orchestral experience, full of vivid, gutsy playing. The winds and brass were terrific at illuminating colourful strands out of the dense score.