MONTREAL – Back in the day, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Beethoven made approximately as natural a match as the Vienna Philharmonic and Villa-Lobos. Naturally, Charles Dutoit assigned a reasonable quota of symphonies to guest conductors and kept the Ninth (as music directors are wont to do) for himself. But the fame of the MSO on tour (and on the Decca label) was for Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and other things not Austro-Germanic.
Then Kent Nagano arrived in 2006, with other ideas. Beethoven was the chairman of the board, and the new recording priority would be a cycle of symphonies. Crab apples such as the present writer complained about the “quest to turn the world’s greatest Ravel orchestra into one of its top 30 or 40 Beethoven bands.” But the change in emphasis did nothing to hurt ticket sales.
Four years after the release of the box set on the Analekta label, the Beethoven beat goes on. The seven-evening cycle with which the 2017-18 season closed on June 1 (there were repeats of the Fourth/Fifth combination and the Ninth) was 90 percent sold before it started. Inter-movement applause early in the run suggested that Nagano continues to attract newcomers to Montreal’s Maison symphonique. Finding a comparably magnetic music director to follow him in 2021-22 will be a tall order.
Finding a comparably fastidious advocate of Beethoven might not be so difficult. Neither an old-fashioned tempo manipulator nor a neo-Baroque martinet, Nagano represents the contemporary golden mean of Beethoven interpretation. Armed with the critical Bärenreiter critical edition, in Symphonies 1 through 8 he staffed the string sections moderately at ten first violins, eight seconds, six violas and four each of cellos and basses, while encouraging lightly-bowed politesse rather than dig-into-it ardor. Winds were easily heard. If an international prize were awarded for transparency in Beethoven’s fugues, this cycle would merit a nomination.
This might sound like condemnation with faint praise, but the fugue of the Allegretto of the Seventh was a remarkable exercise in chamber-scale concentration. Indeed, this movement (not applauded, much less repeated, as it famously was at the 1813 premiere) demonstrated the indestructible potential of quiet beginnings to rise, under careful stewardship, to an awe-inspiring climax.
In fast movements also, one could appreciate the contrapuntal element of Beethoven’s genius: For once in the Eroica my ear followed the cellos beyond their famous C-sharp in the seventh bar. Even in the Fifth there were details that I noticed for the first time (or at least for the first time in a long time). Tempos were brisk but animated by hairpin dynamics and subtle accelerations. Leave it to longtime oboe principal Ted Baskin to let us relax, however briefly, in that fiery opening movement.
Before offering any further comment, I should note that the MSO was divided in two and bolstered with extras to create separate squads of 52 or thereabouts. It might seem absurd to call differing collectives by the same name, but the split was understandable. To perform seven concerts in seven days (to say nothing of rehearsal) would be a heavy burden. That Orchestra A (mostly principals) and Orchestra B (mostly associates) generated more or less the same string tone is perhaps as much a comment on the internationalization of performing style (and schooling) as evidence of the imposition by Nagano of any specific MSO identity.
There were noticeable differences elsewhere. Interim associate principal flute Albert Brouwer spun out bright sunshine while the veteran Tim Hutchins (principal on the 1981 recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé) traded in chiaroscuro. Principal timpanist Andrei Malashenko was more a fine-tuner and less a percussionist than associate Hugues Tremblay (who was in rocker mode for the finale of the Seventh). Not surprisingly, the A team took the stage for a concert filmed by the Medici.tv online service that coupled the Symphony No. 2 (interesting mainly for Nagano’s moderate interpretation of the Allegro molto marking of the finale) and a gentle, colorful Pastoral with a punchy thunderstorm and a “Merry Gathering of Country Folk” that was a good-natured even if apparently alcohol-free affair.
Orchestra B furnished two secure and brilliant horns for the Seventh (often these taxing parts are distributed among three horns). As athletic as ever at 66, Nagano communicated to both musicians and the audience the rhythmic essence of the score. If there was a reversal of expectation, it was in the First Symphony, played by Orchestra A before the Eroica. Rather than follow the classical party line, Nagano took the introduction at a true Adagio molto and concluded the first movement with chords as weighty as those that end its fellow Allegro con brio in the Fifth. Too bad the opening of the Fourth (the first work we heard) was so understated. Am I the only listener who hears in this brooding introduction the example followed by Mahler in his First Symphony?
All this led inevitably to the Ninth. Strings were expanded by at least 20 players; my approximate eye count is less relevant than the sound, the greater depth of which was apparent even in the five-minute choral appetizer, Elegischer Gesang, Op. 118.
In the first movement we had grandeur with no loss of detail or thrust; in the Scherzo the relentless pulse had my foot tapping while the orchestra became, as Donald Francis Tovey happily put it, mysteriously alive and busy. What intensity! We might have hoped for more warmth and elasticity in the Adagio. The espressivo second theme in second violins and violas at bar 25 marks a fault line between classicism and romanticism in orchestral music. Here Nagano was too dry-eyed.
But there was a recovery in the finale, dramatically paced and cogently sung by the 82-strong MSO Chorus (as prepared by Andrew Megill). The “Ode to Joy” theme emerged quietly and hypnotically from a full rather than partial cohort of strings. Soloists were behind the orchestra and in front of the choir, distant from the audience acoustically and psychologically; still, tenor Joseph Kaiser made a clear case for the march, taken at nothing like the notoriously slow metronome marking Beethoven (probably in error) prescribed. After a splendidly frantic double fugue, the music stopped to view the starry vault and bounded forward to its prestissimo conclusion.
Followed by a standing ovation, which was the standard response throughout the run. Why not? Beethoven’s symphonies performed with care and commitment are as great as anything in art. To listen to them as a cycle is to be reminded of the impossibility of hearing them too often. Of course, for hundreds of Montrealers (happily, of various ages) this was a first-time experience. Perhaps there were few novelties for long-serving critics to report on, but this did not make the performances any less effective on the ground.
Yet I cannot deny a fundamental preference for the well-staffed sound of the Ninth. After so many years of being told by historically informed (sometimes misinformed) authorities that Beethoven should be performed by smaller ensembles, might we allow the pendulum to swing the other way? The Ninth was given its premiere in 1824 with a string complement even larger than the one Nagano assembled. I find it hard to believe that the master would not nod his approval at an Eroica or Fifth of like dimensions.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.