Thematic programming has become a regular feature of concert series and Montréal's l’Orchestre Métropolitain’s opening concert of 2015 followed the trend by proposing a program devoted entirely to Pelléas et Mélisande. All the works on the program were composed within that fascinating and transforming decade; 1895–1905.  The composers in question – Fauré, Sibelius and Schoenberg – may each have represented different musical aesthetics and philosophies but all were drawn to the new literary tendency of the time, symbolism. No francophone author represented the trend more tangibly than the Belgian, Maurice Maeterlinck whose play Pelléas et Mélisande was created in 1893 and inspired an impressive array of composers, including Debussy who wrote the revolutionary opera of the same name.

In order to give the performances a dramatic but also a literary context, each work was preceded by readings from Maeterlinck’s play by local actors; the charismatic and engaged Benoît McGinnis as Pelléas and the less convincing Sophie Desmarais as Mélisande. The readings also allowed us to realise how badly Maeterlinck’s stilted and mannered language has aged.

Fauré was approached to write the incidental music for the London première of the play in 1898 and from the original 19 separate pieces, he re-orchestrated and arranged four of the pieces into an orchestral suite. Immensely popular, the suite follows fours stages of Mélisande’s story. Guest conductor Julian Kuerti (son of the acclaimed pianist, Anton) immediately displayed a grasp of Fauré’s trademark refinement of orchestral colours and textures. The Prélude had a depth of sound, a richness and spatial dimension that owed a good deal to his position of the double-basses behind the brass. Similarly, the renowned Sicilienne had a wistful lilt that could not prepare us for the emotional directness and enveloping beauty of Mélisande’s death. Here, as elsewhere, Kuerti coaxed a performance of rare uniformity and communicative power from the OM and more especially the impressive woodwind soloists.

Kuerti negotiated the passage from Fauré to Sibelius deftly. Written in 1905 for a Finnish production of the play in Helsinki, Sibelius’ suite from his incidental music is more elaborate than the Fauré (it contains nine separate pieces) and offers a wide range of orchestral rhythms, colours and moods. If the Fauré is evocative in nature, the Sibelius is more descriptive with a most cogent internal narrative. From the darkly brooding even menacing opening At the Castle Gates to the more joyous Entr'acte, Kuerti beautifully underscored the suite’s internal musical variety and dramatic contrasts. Again it was the highly-charged death of Mélisande that brought out the orchestra’s tonal richness and (despite a few lapses) overall unity. Kuerti still has an almost boyish awkwardness when approaching the podium but his readings are sculptured and framed in ample, sweeping gestures as well as a telling conviction of purpose. At present his reading is wanting only in a certain elasticity and breadth of phrase.

After the interval, the musical environment and form changed dramatically. Schoenberg’s, Pelléas et Mélisande was completed in 1903 and created in 1905 two months before the Sibelius. Schoenberg was supposedly influenced in his choice of subject and musical form by Richard Strauss. And indeed Schoenberg’s density of orchestral texture and sublime orchestration recalls Strauss as does the post-romantic idiom that characterizes the work. Just before Pelléas et Mélisande, Schoenberg had confronted certain structural issues with Verklärte Nacht and gained valuable insights with reference to counterpoint, harmony and thematic structure with Gurrelieder. Schoenberg also adapts In Pelléas et Mélisande a distinctly post-Wagnerian approach to musical motifs and harmony. For his part, Alban Berg famously analysed Schoenberg’s Pelléas et Mélisande not as a single 40-minute symphonic poem but more a four-part symphony. It seemed that Kuerti chose this course underpinning the first part’s sonata form, the episodic, tripartite nature of the second section, the tonally resplendent and broadly drawn Adagio and the finale, Mélisande’s death, that acts as an ultimate recapitulation, not only of her life but also of the work’s prevailing ‘Mélisande’ themes. The work demanded a more-than-full deployment of the orchestra’s forces and the musicians rose to the vast majority of the challenges issued by both Schoenberg and Kuerti. The conductor drew a performance of admirable musical coherency and urgency from his forces. If conviction and commitment occasionally held sway over technical accomplishment, Kuerti and the OM nevertheless repeatedly scaled the emotional heights of the work and simultaneously served notice that both conductor and orchestra merit repeated hearings.