Twenty-two years ago our city had the impact of the first visit of the Montreal Symphony, then under Charles Dutoit. At that time their records of Impressionist music were best-sellers; they are still references. What we heard then was an airy elegance, a natural transparence, a total professionalism, a cultured good taste. Merit of Dutoit but also of the players. Their return now after such a long period brought us the local debut of a great musician, for Kent Nagano is surely in the front line of conductors that are approaching their sixth decade (this is a guess, for his age is absent from the biography in the hand programme).
Montreal is the biggest city of Quebec, the francophonic region of Canada. It would seem that extreme cold doesn´t hinder artistic life, for Chicago, Saint Petersburg and Moscow also have produced very fine orchestras. And the Montreal Symphony, ever since its foundation in 1934 by Wilfried Pelletier, has had a fantastic roster of Musical Directors, all of them much admired in BA: Désiré Defauw, Igor Markevich, Zubin Mehta, Franz-Paul Decker, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Dutoit. Since September 2006 Kent Nagano has taken over.
A Californian of Japanese extraction, Nagano has had a splendid career: he was an innovative Director of the Lyon Opera, Musical Director of the Hallé Orchestra, Principal Associate Conductor of the London Symphony, Artistic and Musical Director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin and the first Musical Director of the Los Angeles Opera. Currently he holds his post at Montreal along with a very impressive Musical Directorship of the Bavarian State Opera at Munich. And of course he has been guest conductor of the best orchestras in the world.
The two programmes presented by the Mozarteum at the Colón, though not audacious, allowed different views of the repertoire. The first was Middle European in a restricted period, 1845-85, and confronted two opposite concepts of music: the descriptive and narrative (Wagner´s Overture and Venusberg Music from "Tannhäuser") and the very essence of abstract creation during the Postromantic period (Brahms´ Fourth Symphony). The bridge between them was that most generous of composers, Franz Liszt (Second Piano Concerto), which allowed our music lovers to hear the debut of a fabulous Ukrainian pianist, Serhij Salov, long-haired, tall, attired in a very Romantic way, and looking no more than thirty.
"Tannhäuser" has two versions: the Dresden premiere was in 1845, and the Paris revision took place in 1861, including as a requisite of the Opera a ballet, the "Venusberg" (Mountain of Venus), intense, chromatic and erotic music. Wagner later made a concert version conflating the Overture with the ballet; Nagano didn´t do exactly this: at a certain point, as the excitement of the ballet winds down, he returned to the Overture and so ended with the solemn music of the Pilgrims in their way to Rome. The luscious sound of the Montreal strings and the expressive brass were quite an experience, and the qualities of Nagano were evident: the sense of style, the clear control, the limpid gestures, the orthodoxy that never bores.
Liszt´s Second Concerto had various versions since 1849; the final one was in 1863. It is quirky, difficult and fascinating; in it the rhetoric is big but always justified, and the meshing of soloist and orchestra is so complex that only an equally virtuoso soloist and orchestra can succeed. It did, with as much poetry as brilliance, in the combined work of Salov and the orchestra. A pity, no encore from the pianist though the ovation was huge.
Brahms´ Fourth is a pillar of the repertoire and is very often done, but its inexhaustible invention seems new if done with such acumen and beauty as Nagano obtained from his very talented players. With impeccable tempi and phrasing that always went to the heart of Brahms´ dense ideas, this was wholly enjoyable.
Encores: an exciting Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner´s "Lohengrin", a fresh and rhythmic "Farandole" from Bizet´s "L´Arlésienne" and what for me was the only bad idea of Nagano: a truncated Ravel "Bolero"...
The second programme combined French and Russian composers and put the accent in color, rhythm and refinement. After a flying start with a stunning rendition of "The Corsair", Berlioz at his most advanced, came Ravel´s "Tzigane", a 9-minute rhapsody for violin and orchestra whose technical problems have always been the terror of even great virtuosi. Although Andrew Wan, the Montreal´s concertino, is honest and well-schooled, he didn´t quite make the grade. The First Part closed with that masterpiece, Stravinsky´s 1919 Suite from "The Firebird"; this score has been done wonderfully in BA and I wouldn´t put this version at the very top, but yes, rather close to it; I especially relished the clarity and punch of Katchei´s Dance.
What was resolutely on top was the best interpretation and playing I´ve ever heard in concert of that extraordinary work by Rimsky-Korsakov: "Scheherazade", surely the most accomplished piece of Orientalism in Western music. With unbelievably accurate and sensitive soloists (clarinet, oboe, bassoon, concertino Wan truly inspired) plus the unerring guidance by Nagano, this was truly memorable.