For obvious reasons, very few orchestras have (yet) to complete a Beethoven symphony cycle in this 250th anniversary year. And so it’s natural, in the words of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, to “break the silence imposed by the pandemic” with Beethoven’s music. The Fifth Symphony, in particular, is being played by orchestras everywhere as their season opener, often in empty halls, beamed digitally to their audiences. A gesture of defiance. Nézet-Séguin’s Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal was one of the first orchestras in North America to reconvene and start making music together. So what better way than a Beethoven cycle?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal

In his introduction to this stream, Nézet-Séguin explained that this was “not a rehearsal, not a concert, not a recording session”, but that he preferred to think of it as “a jam session”. The film has a relaxed look – the players in the Salle Bourgie in black, short-sleeved shirts emblazoned with the OM logo – but the playing was anything but, especially in the Fifth which opened this second broadcast in the series. 

In the Allegro con brio, Nézet-Séguin favoured swift tempi and punchy accenting – at just 6’40” it felt very much in Currentzis territory if without his extrovert exaggerations. Yet the resonant acoustic of the Salle Bourgie, part of the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, didn’t always allow details to register with clarity. Nevertheless, the elation at playing together again was palpable, Nézet-Séguin a beaming bundle of energy on the podium in his white pumps, offering the occasional thumbs up. There were moments of calm – Marjorie Tremblay’s oboe recitative in the eye of the storm was particularly tender – but the overriding mood was breathless excitement. And why not?

Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal © Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal
Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal
© Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal

The Andante con moto motored along, even if allowing some space for moments of brass grandeur. By comparison, the Scherzo lumbered a little, string ensemble not always perfectly aligned, but the double basses really ripped into the contrapuntal Trio and Nézet-Séguin manoeuvred the transition into the final movement skilfully. The C major burst of light was occasionally occluded by the hall’s reverberation and the sound balance seemed to overly favour the piccolo in the closing bars, but there was no denying the joy in the playing. 

After far too short a pause for breath, we dived straight into the Pastoral, which felt like a cooling breeze after the fire of the Fifth. The arrival in the countryside was amiable, a relaxed stroll, Nézet-Séguin happy to stop and smell the flowers in the meadow, sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. The OM string tone glowed in the Salle Bourgie’s warmth, while the woodwinds shone in their roles as nightingale, quail and cuckoo in the scene by the brook. The horns gave the peasant merrymaking a wonderfully rustic feel, the dancing vigorous and hearty (I think these peasants had downed a few pints). The storm was unleashed with fury by the timpani and brass, Nézet-Séguin driving them on with fierce baton slashes, making the balm of the shepherd’s song of thanksgiving that followed most welcome. The Pastoral shows Beethoven in the sunniest of moods and that was captured gloriously here. 

Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal in Salle Bourgie © Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal
Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal in Salle Bourgie
© Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal

Most concert pairings would place the Fifth after the Sixth – indeed, Six followed by Five was how this stream was originally advertised – but the uplifting sense of relief and gratitude at the end of the Pastoral somehow feels more appropriate than the Fifth’s triumphal climax right now. In October, the OM welcomes back live audiences, when that sense of relief and gratitude will be extended. 

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on DG Stage.