Canadian Orchestras Create Spate Of CDs With Uneven Results

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Rafael Payare leads the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in recordings of works by Mahler and Richard Strauss. (Photo by Antoine Saito)

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Rafael Payare, conductor. Pentatone PTC 5187067

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben; Mahler: Rückert Lieder. Sonya Yoncheva, soprano. Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Rafael Payare, conductor. Pentatone PTC 5187201

Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie. Marc-André Hamelin, piano; Nathalie Forget, ondes Martenot; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Gustavo Gimeno, conductor. Harmonia Mundi HMM905336

DIGITAL REVIEW — If one were asked to rank Canadian orchestras, I believe most critics would place the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) at the top, with little to choose between them. But the Vancouver Symphony, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the Orchestre métropolitainYannick Nézet-Séguin’s Montreal orchestra — are not far behind.

In the last few years, both the TSO and the OSM have acquired new conductors, and both have also managed to land recording contracts. The Venezuelan Rafael Payare with the OSM and the Spaniard Gustavo Gimeno with the TSO both had to cope with the restrictions and impediments placed upon them during the pandemic years at the beginning of their music directorships, but both have emerged as charismatic leaders. The first recordings bear that out, too. Payare has recorded music by Mahler and Richard Strauss with the OSM for Pentatone, and Gimeno leads Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with the TSO for Harmonia Mundi.

From 1977 to 2002, when Charles Dutoit was the OSM’s music director, the orchestra was celebrated internationally for its recordings. The OSM had an exclusive contract with Decca and turned out dozens of distinguished recordings, especially of French repertoire. Dutoit deserved a great deal of credit, but so too did the recording venue: a small church in the town of Saint- Eustache, 22 miles northwest of Montreal.

But that was when the orchestra played in Place des Arts, a huge, multi-purpose auditorium with terrible acoustics. Now the OSM plays and records in Maison symphonique, an excellent venue for recordings. Dutoit’s successor, Kent Nagano, made several recordings with the orchestra, and now Payare and the OSM are beginning a new era with Pentatone.

The first OSM-Payare recording was Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, released last year. The playing is uniformly excellent, with special kudos to principal trumpet Paul Merkelo and principal horn Catherine Turner. Payare is a very physical conductor with lots of body movement and somewhat extravagant gestures. But his interpretations to date have been remarkable more for their precision than for their excitement. The climaxes in the Mahler are too restrained for my taste, and the famous Adagietto fails to generate much emotional impact. Compared to many other conductors, Payare is rather quick and businesslike in this movement. He plays it in 8:56, while Bernstein takes 11:13 and Osmo Vänskä 12:36. (Mahler himself is said to have preferred between eight and nine minutes.)

A year later, Pentatone returned to Montreal to record the OSM in music by Strauss and Mahler. And this time the results are far more impressive. In fact, their recording of Ein Heldenleben is magnificent. Credit is due everyone involved, but especially conductor Payare and recording producer Martin Sauer. The work is densely scored with layers of complex counterpoint. But nearly every musical element emerges with both color and clarity.

Concertmaster Andrew Wan’s rendering of the extended violin solo is superb and especially moving in the closing pages. Once again, as in the Mahler Fifth, Turner’s horn playing is outstanding. As far as interpretation is concerned, Payare gets every episode just right, and in the battle sequence the percussion parts have tremendous impact without being overdone. The crescendo in the final bars is perfectly gauged and absolutely stunning. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Rückert Songs with soprano Sonya Yoncheva. The Bulgarian singer has a distinctive sound and often thrills with her sense of drama. But too often in these songs, especially in “Um Mitternacht,” Yoncheva’s vibrato in her upper register becomes wide and ugly.

The TSO has made recordings over the years, beginning with Ernest MacMillan in the 1940s and continuing with Seiji Ozawa and Andrew Davis, among others. But it hasn’t come close to matching the OSM’s phenomenal success under Dutoit. There is hope now that with Gimeno on the podium and the Harmonia Mundi contract, things will change. However, the odds are not good. The classical-music record business is in a steep decline, and Gimeno is a young conductor on the move who may not stay long enough to have much impact in Toronto.

The TSO, Gimeno, and Harmonia Mundi decided to make their first recording together a kind of a blockbuster: Messiaen’s massive Turangalîla-Symphonie. It is 80 minutes long, with a huge orchestra, a piano soloist, and another soloist playing the ondes Martenot, a most unusual instrument. As it happens, the TSO recorded this piece in 1967 with Ozawa. It was an odd but attention-getting choice then but is not so offbeat in 2024. There have been at least 25 recordings of Turangalîla to date with conductors of the stature of Rattle, Chailly, Nagano, and Salonen. Do we really need another? And while some critics like to characterize Turangalîla as rarely performed, I know of at least four major performances in the past year: Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic (March 2023), Simone Young and the Berlin Philharmonic (May 2023), Simon Rattle and the London Symphony (June 2023), and Payare and the OSM (December 2023).

Gustavo Gimeno conducted the Toronto Symphony in Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla,’ with pianist Marc-André Hamelin and ondes Martenot player Nathalie Forget, before recording it for Harmonia Mundi. (Photo by Jag Gundu)

So the TSO performing and recording Turangalîla is just one of many. Is it good enough? Yes, it is very good in terms of both performance and recorded sound, but it is not superior to any of those I have mentioned. That means it may have trouble making much of an impression and so may not sell many copies.

There is no doubt about it: Turangalîla is a remarkable piece of music. In my experience, it has a sound that is virtually unique. It is the quirky instrumentation, the use of elements from Indian and Javanese music, the bird song impressions, etc. For some listeners, it is like an out-of-body experience. For others, it is an eclectic mess. For me, it has episodes full of joy and beauty, but ultimately I find it too relentless and too loud. My body gets tired listening to it and wishes not to hear it again for a very long time.

And the ondes Martenot? This is an electronic keyboard instrument with a string-instrument type of singing — or cloying – sound, depending on your taste, that has often been used in horror films. If the volume is turned up too high, it can drown out everything else, but in this new recording it is balanced just about right. The slow and quiet movement “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” (Garden of the sleep of love) I find gorgeous; but the wild and crazy movement “Joie du sang des étoiles” (Joy of the blood of the stars) is just too much of everything — and again, very, very loud.

It takes a virtuoso pianist to play the solo part in Turangalîla, and the celebrated Canadian Marc-Andre Hamelin is just the artist who can do it. He is often overpowered by the mammoth orchestra — the composer’s, not the conductor’s, fault — but when he can be heard, he is as wonderful as ever.

So there is lots to admire about these new recordings from the excellent orchestras in Montreal and Toronto, as well as some features that are open to question. But there is no doubt that each of the recordings considered confirm the very high quality of both the OSM and the TSO. Their relatively young conductors — Payare is 44 and Gimeno is 48 — also make very positive impressions.