Yannick Nézet-Séguin is arguably the most up-and-coming conductor in the classical music world as we enter 2010. As well as being in his second season as both Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (having succeeded Valery Gergiev) and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic, the young French-Canadian maestro continues to make guest appearances with ensembles of ever-greater renown. It is, however, with his longest-standing orchestral partner – the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal – that he has made his first significant discographical venture. That project – a cycle of Anton Bruckner's late symphonies – is completed with this recording of 'Apocalyptic' Eighth in C minor.
Nézet-Séguin's performance errs on the unhurried side, particularly in the vast expanses of the third-movement Adagio (almost half-an-hour in length) and the Finale, which allows him to plumb the depths of his orchestra's sonority. The strings, in particular, are on top form, emanating a rich and radiating glow throughout the piece. The throbbing principal theme of the slow movement is utterly mesmerising, and there is some beautifully contoured interplay in the second subject. The laid-back approach to tempi is perhaps most successful in the Scherzo which, though lacking the fervency that surely would have resulted with greater swiftness, is rather convincing when portrayed as a resolute, majestic and – ultimately – triumphant proclamation.
These slow speeds, inevitably, make Bruckner's endlessly billowing music extraordinarily difficult to communicate as a coherent unit. Individually, each peak and trough is navigated with deft precision, with the opening Allegro moderato and ensuing Scherzo teasingly intimating, yet never quite revealing, the evocative nature of what is to come. However, within the context of the work's two truly monumental musical statements, the zeniths become increasingly underwhelming, the burgeoning dynamics and breadth of tempo seemingly unable to find the extra gear necessary to portray Bruckner's innermost feelings. The blazing end of the symphony is, perhaps, the most prescient example of this, not quite achieving the unbridled exhilaration and ecstasy that one might expect after a near-ninety-minute journey of unutterable emotion.
Nézet-Séguin's performance is, nevertheless, a thoroughly commendable one, though it isn't aided by a rather woolly recorded sound (captured in Montréal's Église du Très Saint-Nom-de-Jésus) that heavily favours strings and brass. Though occasionally some beautiful reed solos peek through the texture, the woodwind are too often a barely-audible blur underneath the rest of the orchestra. (Curiously, this recording has been distributed on conventional compact disc, whereas its two predecessors were released on SACD. Perhaps this is a sign of the economic times, particularly given the debatable cost-to-benefit ratio of the newer technology.)
As is the case with many recordings of this work, Nézet-Séguin's reading of Bruckner's Eighth cannot be housed on a single disc. ATMA Classique have provided a filler in the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, from the conductor's first Bruckner release with the Orchestre Métropolitain in 2007 (SACD2 2512). This is a highly competent performance, once again exuding exquisite and tender phrasing from the strings, and with a delightfully crafted second subject. The movement's climax is breathtaking, though perhaps the orchestra should invest in a new pair of cymbals – the controversial clash allegedly signifying Wagner's death is a pitifully tepid affair. Again, recorded sound is a little hazy, detracting once more from the woodwind's attempts at clarity.
Though this performance of the Eighth might struggle to jockey for a prominent position amongst established recordings of the work, Nézet-Séguin is a Brucknerian worth keeping an eye on in years to come. His affection for the music is unquestionable, and I would be intrigued to hear him tackle the Fourth Symphony at some stage in the not-too-distant future. Further down the line, there is certainly enough promise here to suggest that a return to the Eighth will reveal enlightening, perhaps even ground-breaking, results.