This was an inspiring and emotional concert that showcased the superb quality of musicianship and beauty of sound of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in works that were mostly dark in character, directed with intensity and strength by Rafael Payare.

Rafael Payare conducts the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
© Antoine Saito

The short opener, Melodia en el Llano, by the virtually unknown Venezuelan composer, Antonio Estévez, is the composer's most famous work. It is a sultry depiction of a hot dry landscape at noon in which Estévez uses simple, but lush orchestral texture to create the heat haze and wildlife sounds. It's not the most unique work, but for Payare an opportunity to feature a composer from his homeland. The work got a Rolls Royce performance from the OSM.

Shostakovich's Cello Concerto no. 2 in G major is an extremely troubled and troubling work. Because of this, it is rarely heard, so it was a treat to see it given such a dedicated performance by Alisa Weilerstein. Written in 1966, at a time when the composer was facing a steep decline in health and actually suffered several heart attacks during its composition, it is bleak and uncompromising. Any hint of humour or lightness of mood is not tinged with darkness, but is completely infused with it.

The opening movement is dominated by one of those Shostakovich themes that appear to meander around one note in semitones, broken up by angular intervals. The bizarre central section culminates in eight loud strokes of the bass drum, which seems to indicate something destructive, full of fatalistic foreboding. Weilerstein was grimly determined in her approach, emotionally and technically unforced. The oddly unamusing Scherzo, was taken here at a measured tempo, which emphasised its uneasy character. The finale is a set variations, a form Shostakovich rarely used. It is very effectively constructed, but the mood swings are extremely bewildering. Strange fanfares share the stage with a recurring theme that sounds like it’s been written by Boccherini, alongside sinister dancelike passages. The coda has an array of clattering percussion, which for all the world sounds like the slow jigging of skeletons. Weilerstein was equal to everything the composer threw at her and the OSM were at her side with clarity and poise.

Alisa Weilerstein plays Shostakovich
© Antoine Saito

Dvořák wrote his splendid Seventh Symphony for a London commission and it was an instant hit. It has remained a favourite in the concert hall, in recent years being seen as the most serious and effectively ‘symphonic’ of the composer’s nine works in the genre. While it clearly is influenced by Brahms, it occupies its own world which takes it beyond German Romanticism. In this performance, Payare seemed to be emphasising the Brahmsian connection, with measured tempi giving the structure of each movement a chance to unravel and breathe. What was lost was that the more folksy and dancelike episodes sounded more muted and incidental. What was gained was a real sense of symphonic impetus. The outcome of this was a performance of satisfying cohesion.

The long first movement was held together excellently by Payare. There was contrast between the minor key first theme and the gentle major key second subject, but the thread of drama was never dropped. The final climax was superbly intense. The slow movement tempo was spot on, its underlying melancholy never far away, but not over-emphasised. Again, its climax was nicely prepared. A measured tempo was chosen for the Scherzo, which is less obviously folk-dance in character than is usual for the composer, with Payare focussing on the serious nature of the music. The finale can seem fiery and fierce in some performances, a headlong rush to the brief tragic coda, but Payare controlled the proceedings through his careful choice of a moderate tempo, allowing the effective structure to unfold with an inevitability that was hugely impressive. The OSM met all the challenges, producing a wonderfully weighty and clear tone throughout.

This performance was reviewed from OSM's video stream