This week Maestro Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) gave Place des Arts concert-goers a feast of the familiar and the unfamiliar that was truly exceptional, and I think they liked it.
The evening’s star attraction was the outstanding violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, now a fully mature artist after years of wonder as a young prodigy encouraged by the likes of Herbert von Karajan, Andre Previn and Mstislav Rostropovich.
Mutter could play the Beethoven and Brahms concertos for the next 30 years and sell out most any hall on earth, but she has chosen to do otherwise. She still loves the classics, but she loves being a musician of her time as well; as such, she commissions the finest contemporary composers to write pieces for her. She then not only gives the premiere performance of that piece, but introduces it to audiences in concert halls around the world and usually records it too. She is a dream artist for any composer.
And so Mutter came to Montreal with only two pieces to play – neither one of them a virtuoso warhorse. Instead, we were treated to Sur le même accord by Henri Dutilleux, and In tempus praesens by Sophia Gubaidulina (or sometimes spelled ‘Gubaidoulina’).
In my opinion, the Dutilleux was little more than an amuse bouche, but the Gubaidulina was the genuine article: a full-length 21st century violin concerto that had something new and important to say that went far beyond new sounds/noises.
Henri Dutilleux was 86 when he wrote Sur le même accord (2002). The piece is only ten minutes long and limits itself to creating beautiful colours in a way that is pleasing but not very substantial. Gubaidulina’s In tempus praesens (2007) on the other hand, aims for and achieves musical originality and spiritual depth.
Gubaidulina often composes pieces of soulful import and her life seems driven by a personal religious conviction. As she herself has put it: “I am a religious Russian Orthodox person and I understand ‘religion’ in the literal meaning of the word, as ‘re-ligio’, that is to say, the restoration of connections, the restoration of the ‘legato’ of life. There is no more serious task for music than this”.
Whether one shares Gubaidulina’s religious commitment or not, one cannot help but be moved by In tempus praesens. Notably, the orchestration is unusual and highly effective. Gone are the first and second violin sections of the orchestra, giving the solo violin more room to dominate in its own range and timbre. Another unusual touch is the use of three Wagner tubas. Wagner and Bruckner used this instrument to good effect. but few composers have since. These tubas don’t sound particularly Wagnerian or Brucknerian in this work, but they do add a distinctive colour.
In one memorable episode in the piece, the strings play reiterated chords that increase in volume, as other instruments are added. In the pauses between, the solo violin plays passages of great virtuosity and intensity. There is never a dull moment in this piece, and all of it seems genuinely expressive.
Mutter’s performance was authoritative, and she had worthy partners in Nagano and the members of the OSM. Their playing was remarkably assured for so complex a piece.
In tempus praesens is a work one would like to hear many times again to appreciate everything that is going on. Fortunately, Mutter has recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon with Gergiev and the London Symphony.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The trumpet solo which opens the piece was in the very capable hands of principal trumpet Paul Merkelo. From beginning to end he gave what amounted to a clinic in trumpet playing with some of the sweetest sounds ever heard in Place des Arts. And by ‘sweet’ I mean that Merkelo produces a unique sound that remains beautiful even in the loudest passages. Not far behind was principal horn John Zirbel, with outstanding playing in the third movement. The entire orchestra played magnificently under Kent Nagano’s masterly direction.
I have not heard the OSM in Place des Arts for many months and I was struck by the seating of the orchestra. The double bass section, for example, was on the left side for this concert, and that placement made a big difference; the sound projected much better than in past concerts I had attended at Place des Arts (seated in roughly the same section – the first balcony) although, in my opinion, it still lacked that depth and presence characteristic of some of the world’s best concert halls.
The third movement of the Mahler features extended solos for the first horn player. In this performance John Zirbel was moved from the horn section on the back left to a position on the right behind the viola section. Unfortunately, most people couldn’t see him, because he was positioned directly behind the harp. If Zirbel was moved for better projection of the horn sound, the tactic was unsuccessful. The horns generally project well from their normal position, and the change didn’t seem to make any difference.
The Adagietto worked its magic as it nearly always does; this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful movements in all of Mahler. No wonder Visconti used it for his film Death in Venice and Ennio Morricone stole it for the soundtrack of Sergio Leone’s great film Once Upon a Time in America. The strings played with a lovely warmth and Nagano made sure that rhythm wasn’t sacrificed to beauty.
All in all, the Mahler Fifth performance was impressive in terms of the standard of playing and the wealth of detail Nagano was able to bring out. On the other hand, there was a certain lack of urgency and passion in the performance. It could well be the result of trying to prepare too much challenging music in too little rehearsal time. Conductor and players might have been erring on the side of accuracy at the expense of excitement. If so, the repeat performances could have been more inspired than the opening night performance I heard. On the other hand, it could also be that this is the way Nagano likes his Mahler – accurate and inward-looking, but not too emotional and certainly not out of control.
Whatever the case, there is always more to be discovered and there is plenty of room for interpretation; that’s why we celebrate Mahler this year and next and continue to be fascinated by his music.