SIBELIUS Symphony No 1 (Nézet-Séguin)
Just Sibelius’s First Symphony? That is exceptionally short measure for a CD. The ratio of quality over quantity needed to be especially dramatic – not least because barely a couple of months back Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Gothenburg Symphony brought us quite the most gripping account of the piece I’ve heard in years. This, alas, is not.
As a self-confessed Nézet-Séguin fan it pains me to be using words like ‘flaccid’, ‘aimless’ and ‘sprawling’ in attempting to convey the essence of this reading. I’m baffled by it. It’s almost as if the maestro is subconsciously trying to compensate for the short measure by stretching the fabric of the symphony as far as it will go without it actually coming apart. Unusually for Nézet-Séguin, the whole performance fatally lacks imperative. After the clarinet’s wistful stare across the bleak landscape of the outset, the first subject seems to luxuriate in a self-consciously Tchaikovskian manner, lingering, inappropriate rubato suggesting that Sibelius was trying rather too hard to shake off his homeland’s Russian influence.
The whole thing lacks punch and impetus, grit and sinew. It is expansively loose-limbed, even flabby, rhythm and attack far from unanimous. The second movement is woefully lacking in tension, slow and effortful, hard work. And once past the Scherzo – the Trio, by the way, so slow it feels interminable – the finale portentously delivers its big tune in a manner so sombre that it is not remotely aspirational. It’s a view, but not mine.
Rouvali is currently a clear first choice for this piece – a reading of great edge-of-seat drama and startling clarity. Honestly, if you had played me the present account blind I would never have guessed that Yannick Nézet-Séguin was at the helm. It could have been ‘one of those days’ – or a simple case of not really having a handle on what makes this piece tick.