Intimate Brahms From Bremen At Lanaudière Fest

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The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and conductor Paavo Järvi played Beethoven at the Lanaudière Festival.
The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and conductor Paavo Järvi performed Brahms at the Lanaudière Festival.
By Earl Arthur Love

JOLIETTE, QUEBEC – One of Canada’s musical gems is the summer festival some call “Tanglewood North.” Situated less than an hour’s drive northeast of Montreal, the Lanaudière Festival is Canada’s largest classical music festival. Nestled in a bucolic woodland setting, the Father Fernand Lindsay Amphitheatre (named after the Festival’s founder) seats 2,000, a raked lawn leading down to the amphitheatre can accommodate 8,000 picnickers, and tented pavilions offer both casual and fine dining. Churches in the neighboring region provide venues for recitals and chamber ensembles.

Christian Tetzlaff played the Brahms Violin Concerto. (Giorgia Bertazzi)
Christian Tetzlaff played Brahms’ Violin Concerto. (Giorgia Bertazzi)

This season, the festival’s 37th, ran from July 8 to Aug. 10, and featured artists such as violinist Jennifer Koh and pianists Kristian Bezuidenhout, Beatrice Rana, and Lars Vogt, as well as ensembles including Les Violons du Roy, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Orchestre symphonique de Montréal), and Dance Theatre of Harlem. During the final week alone one could hear and compare three orchestras.

On the blisteringly hot afternoon of Aug. 3, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, which last performed here in 2012 to enthusiastic acclaim, gave the second of two concerts consisting exclusively of works by Brahms. (On the previous evening they presented his First Piano Concerto with Lars Vogt, and also the Second Symphony.) This is a small orchestra numbering about 50 players, but first-rate.

They played the Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff as if it were a chamber piece and succeeded beautifully. Paavo Järvi, the orchestra’s artistic director since 2004, provided tight, clean, unobtrusive support, letting Tetzlaff indulge in a totally committed interpretation that encompassed the widest dynamic, technical, and emotional ranges. Tetzlaff delivered a mesmerizing performance – flawless double and triple stops accompanied by his vigorous foot stomping in the outer movements, and an expressive, wistful middle movement, during which a few neighboring cicadas joined in.

The lawn outside Father Fernand Lindsay Amphitheatre can accommodate 8,000 listeners.
The lawn outside Father Fernand Lindsay Amphitheatre can welcome 8,000 listeners.

On the other hand, the orchestra’s interpretation of the First Symphony didn’t quite hit the mark. The magnificent opening, with its pounding timpani and brisk tempo, came off like the charge of the Light Brigade. It quickly became clear that this small orchestra was trying to sound like a big one, and indeed it succeeded. In doing so, however, it lost some of the clarity and unity so impressive in the concerto. The orchestra had the full complement of wind instruments but lacked the depth in strings that one would normally find in a major ensemble. The principal horn and woodwinds provided fine solos in both the concerto and the symphony, while the trombones and trumpets glowed in the chorales of the final movement.

On the evening of Aug. 6, Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led his hometown orchestra, the Orchestre Métropolitain in a program of works by Beethoven and Wagner. It is Montreal’s “second” orchestra, and one with which he has long been associated.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin excelled in Beethoven and Wagner.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin excelled in music of Beethoven and Wagner.

Delivering pre-recorded remarks via the amphitheatre’s giant video screens, the young maestro, wearing a speckled, light gray V-neck T-shirt, explained that Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony was, like the Sixth, also pastoral, but happier and less philosophical. The concert opened with the Egmont Overture, followed by the Eighth. The 60-strong ensemble excelled in clarity of detail, meticulous attention to phrasing and dynamics, and flawless intonation. Both the quieter, more lyrical passages and the tempestuous climaxes were riveting.

The second half of the concert, devoted to the music of Wagner, was nothing less than magical. Yannick (as he is popularly called) drew from his reduced orchestra an exquisite Siegfried Idyll that left one breathless. Tender, loving, restrained, blissful – the performance couldn’t have better lived up to the title of the work. The concluding “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde shimmered like a finely honed ode to Venus floating on an Olympian cloud – miraculous in its breathtaking beauty. The height to which Nézet-Séguin has led this orchestra during the last several years is astonishing.

On Aug. 9, the penultimate day of the festival, music director Kent Nagano led  the full-size Montreal Symphony in Mahler’s Second Symphony. This was a mixed success. The first three movements failed to ignite: they were static, joyless, lacking in confidence and inspiration. The performance came to life only with the entry of mezzo-soprano Susan Platts. She delivered a haunting “Urlicht” with just the right amount of rich vibrato. The heavy orchestral forces, remote brass fanfares, and the Montreal Symphony Choir’s ethereal performance also provided some stirring moments in the finale.

Kent Nagano led the Montreal Symphony in Mahler's Second.
Kent Nagano led the Montreal Symphony in Mahler’s Second.

James Box’s exceptional trombone solos stood in stark contrast to the colorless efforts of the horns and trumpets. Strings tended to fade into the background, although the young concertmaster Andrew Wan did a fine job accompanying Platts in “Urlicht.” The orchestra often drowned out soprano Erin Wall, but its intensity was heartily appreciated by the audience in the coruscating moments of the final movement.

Kudos are due to the video team that brought precise planning and execution in highlighting the musical lines of each work. Despite the single disappointing Montreal Symphony performance, the entire festival, with its glorious setting, eclectic programming, and marvelous acoustics, offered more than enough pleasures to satisfy the discriminating music lover.

For more background on the festival see the July 2013 article by Robert Markow.

Earl Love is the Montreal correspondent for www.concertonet.com, a feature writer for American Record Guide, and a professional drummer. Formerly, he wrote for Opera Canada magazine, while working as a speechwriter for the Government of Canada in Ottawa.