In Pursuit Of A Cycle, Confronting Gloom Of Sibelius’ 4th Symphony

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Orchestre Métropolitian in Montreal. (Photos by Antoine Saito)

MONTREAL — The least of his three directorships as measured by weeks of service, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s relationship with the Orchestre Métropolitain is by no means inconsequential in terms of musical content. Having produced a box set of Bruckner symphonies with his hometown band, the Montrealer is now in the midst of a Sibelius cycle, also on the ATMA Classique label. Microphones were in place in the Maison symphonique on Feb. 11 for a performance of the Fourth Symphony that did little to counter its reputation as the most austere and inscrutable of the seven.

Using the score, the normally demonstrative conductor deployed an economical repertoire of gestures and received results to match. I took his restraint to signify not so much a lack of resolution as an acknowledgement of the enigmatic nature of a work that is more about doubt than affirmation. Sunshine breaks through the clouds here and there, but the predominant mood is interior and gloomy. The climax of the tempo largo slow movement (which Nézet-Séguin in his introductory remarks compared to Wagner’s Parsifal) was all the more impressive for emerging from a shadowy landscape.

There were other things to savor. The split-violin configuration that has become standard on many symphonic stages (though not in Philadelphia) paid dividends in the development of the first movement, as strings scurried this way and that, with mutes and without. Winds spoke clearly. The oboe in the Allegro molto vivace second movement — that sun breaking through the clouds — was lively. Special mention is owed to the mellow horns, offering the far-off prospect of hope, especially in the first movement. Veteran principal cello Christopher Best produced understated solos. Perhaps this music is remarkable enough without the imposition of vocal curvature.

Nézet-Séguin started the finale attacca, without the permission of the composer. Might there be a way of making the syncopated clusters of this movement seem less off-kilter? Another question from a score that poses quite a few. We shall see if the recording, with touch-ups, offers answers.  

Pianist Jean-Phillippe Sylvestre performing André Mathieu’s ‘Concerto de Quebec’ with the Orchestre Métropolitain under Yannick Nézet-Séguin .

The program began — unusually, as YNS conceded — with the Concerto de Québec, the greatest hit of André Mathieu (1929-68), a piano and composition prodigy whose early promise unraveled in a haze of alcohol. Despite its titular equation with Quebec City, this lyrical score (which turns up in the 1947 noir thriller Whispering City) is grounded unapologetically in Hollywood. It has been recorded by Philippe Entremont, Alain Lefèvre, and the soloist on this occasion, Jean-Philippe Sylvestre. I wish I could report a full heart-on-sleeve success, but balances (particularly with the aggressive brass) were imperfect and some solo sequences sounded clattery. The same judgement applies to Sylvestre’s encore, the finale of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7.

There was an intermission — a rare phenomenon lately — during which the orchestra screened a documentary made in honor of its 40th anniversary. Then we heard Promenade, a close-to-atonal two-movement work written for the OM in 2001 by the Université de Montréal professor Isabelle Panneton. It seemed dated in the best sense — a relic of a time when it was possible to craft serious new music with no social or political agenda and have it performed with attention and respect. The composer was there to take a bow.

A quarter-capacity crowd of 500 (the maximum allowed according to the restrictive rules imposed by the government of Quebec) listened quietly and applauded warmly. Standing ovations reflected sheer joy at the opportunity to attend a live event. Fewer people in the hall meant less noise for the recording engineers to suppress. I heard only one sneeze during Sibelius that might require attention. No need to worry about health consequences: All the listeners were masked, as were non-wind players. Proof of vaccination was required to enter the hall.

The concert (titled A Nordic Tale) was offered as a live webcast with an unfortunately brief replay period (since expired). It is possible, however, to view the documentary on the OM website, in French. As for Nézet-Séguin, he heads back to New York Feb. 21 with the Philadelphia Orchestra for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Carnegie Hall before starting runs of Puccini’s Tosca (March 2-12) and Verdi’s Don Carlos (March 3-22) at the Metropolitan Opera. He next appears with the OM in Montreal on May 20 in Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem.