Could the timing possibly be better?
Only weeks after his Metropolitan Opera appointment, Yannick Nézet-Séguin has come out with the latest installment of his series of Mozart opera recordings from Deutsche Grammophon, and it's the piece long regarded with the most affection - The Marriage of Figaro.
It joins a cluster of on-demand Nézet-Séguin videos that includes the Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 on the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall and a Mahler Symphony No. 10 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra on YouTube. Stray European radio broadcasts include a live Mendelssohn symphony cycle that may have a commercial release.
One can't help listening to these recordings while wondering: Will Nézet-Séguin thrive in his recent elevation to the top 3 percent of his profession? Survival at the top is not guaranteed. Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Slatkin, and Christoph Eschenbach all turned out to be more comfortable and better appreciated in the middle level.
In contrast, Nézet-Séguin has previously confronted challenges with an artistic quantum leap. The Nézet-Séguin who assumed the Philadelphia Orchestra music directorship in 2012 was far deeper and more resourceful than the conductor who made a 2008 debut.
With the new Figaro recording, he would appear to have done it again. His past Mozart recordings have been made live in concert in Baden-Baden, Germany. These are not full productions, but because they don't require months of commitment, they do allow for some high-toned casting options.
Typically in this cycle, Nézet-Séguin's priorities were to support the singers, even if that meant that the Così fan tutte overture, one place for him to shine, felt less rehearsed than the rest. But from the first chords of the Figaro overture, he establishes a bold, fully crystallized concept of Mozartean sonority and the psychological implications behind it.
In a promotional video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdrHmSIo-68), Nézet-Séguin talks about finding profound operatic subtext in subsidiary elements. Thus, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe winds are brought more to the foreground than usual, with the brass delivering an extra bite. Recitatives are accompanied by fortepiano rather than harpsichord, with Jory Vinikour breezily improvising during arias. In keeping with the Mozart-era tradition of adding unwritten vocal ornaments, Angela Brower (Cherubino) almost enters the Ella Fitzgerald zone.
The rest of the cast in this sex farce (amid the backdrop of declining aristocracy and a rising working class) includes two singers I'd most like to hear in their respective roles - Christiane Karg as the wily servant Susanna and Sonya Yoncheva (Nézet-Séguin's Desdemona last fall at the Met's Otello) as the Countess. They're just wonderful. Luca Pisaroni's Figaro is available on live DVDs, but in this sound-only recording, he makes dramatic points not with his usual word articulation but with more microphone-friendly use of tone color.
Less flamboyant roles are cast with older singers who can convey a personality in the first few notes - Thomas Hampson as the Count, for example. Even small roles are cast with stars: Anne Sofie von Otter as Marcellina and Rolando Villazón as Basilio help sustain Act 4 during the often cut, less dramatically relevant arias assigned to their characters.
The 50-plus Figaro recordings on CD and DVD listed on Amazon.com show how the opera showcases each generation of Mozart performers, starting with Fritz Busch's crackling Glyndebourne performances, and continuing with the cool, precise Karl Böhm, the Dionysian Carlo Maria Giulini, René Jacobs' historically informed approach, and Teodor Currentzis' fascinating Greek/Russian fusion.
Nézet-Séguin's recording takes its place among these touchstones. A great musical mediator, he is more mainstream than most, and perhaps more durable, with a performance that wears well over long-term listening.
The primary attraction of the Berlin Philharmonic on-demand video concert (www.berliner-philharmoniker.de/en/concerts/calendar/details/22415/) is the Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar), with a text of Yevgeny Yevtushenko poems about the mass slaughter of Jews in World War II. The performance feels like a personal crusade, the latest expression of Nézet-Séguin's continued devotion to this composer. Mikhail Petrenko is a key component: He's one of the few Russian basses with a clean, precise, yet hefty voice, fueled by passionate, intelligent use of words. The Berlin Philharmonic sheds its sometimes annoying chrome-plated sonority while revealing Shostakovich's bare nerve endings. English titles on screen help viewers navigate the dramatic trajectory.
The YouTube Mahler 10th with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMN_ DWY9RX8) is engagingly mercurial, but not as well played as the performance Nézet-Séguin led earlier this year in Philadelphia. There are some adjustment problems in the tricky acoustics of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, where the video was shot, but you still feel the great rapport he has with this fine orchestra.
So, are there any clouds in Nézet-Séguin's digital skies? Possibly. His Mendelssohn symphony cycle follows the pattern of his successful Schumann symphony recordings with Deutsche Grammophon, performed with the scaled-down forces of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
One has to be careful about drawing conclusions on the basis of radio recordings: They can be like photos that have yet to be cropped to their best advantage. But while buried details emerged in Schumann, Mendelssohn seems to be a case of "less is less." The more famous symphonies (3, 4, and 5) are extremely well represented in the recording market. And the truly neglected Symphony No. 1 would seem to deserve its fate, with its scant thematic content and uninteresting development.
I actually discussed this briefly with Nézet-Séguin over the winter: He defended the symphony's inclusion and expressed surprise that his performance failed to change my mind. Of course, one respects Nézet-Séguin's way of believing 100 percent in what he's doing. But even he can't rewrite the Mendelssohn 1st.