After a 34-year hiatus from the Konzerthaus stage, the Toronto Symphony gave a knockout performance that had everything in spades: guest stars, brilliant solo work and an exciting and varied program featuring Bartok, Brahms, Elgar and more.

Maxim Vengerov © B Ealovega
Maxim Vengerov
© B Ealovega

Charging out of the gate with a bang instead of a whimper, the Canadian ensemble, along with Carla Huhtanen and the Wiener Singakademie ,opened with Boulez’ Le Soleil des eaux. Hutanen’s soprano spoke clearly throughout her range and lent itself beautifully to Boulez’s ebbs and flows, bursting out of the orchestra’s colorful splashes and acting as shimmering extension of upward-reaching choral waves, particularly in the transparent, intimate first movement “Complainte du lézard amoureux”. The dramatic second movement, “La Sorgue”, featured various vocal techniques from soloist and choir, who whispered, nagged and declaimed brilliantly (rehearsal work came from Heinz Ferlesch) – while the instrumentalists flutter-tongued, growled and percussed their way through in true Boulez fashion.

In act two, Maxim Vengerov, whose name has long been a benchmark of excellence in his field, strode onto the stage to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto. I felt a flutter of anticipation, having seldom heard him live since his return to the stage in 2012 after a five-year hiatus recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery. Expecting to be blown away by his meaty sound and technical gymnastics, what actually caught me off guard was the pure beauty and quality of his piano lines. The secondary theme of the first movement was breathtaking, and his complete commitment to every single sound is something truly, uniquely special. And technique? The performance was a technical buffet. Vengerov owned the work with his signature combination of ease and complete virtuosic control. His first movement cadenza offered every skillset in the book in rapid succession, and his trills and unwavering legato are, frankly, superhuman. Though I like my Brahms a bit hairier on the knuckles, and riskier in terms of dynamic and motion than the Symphony’s well-behaved accompaniment allowed for, Vengerov was an unstoppable force of nature. He played his dynamics and his tempos – and if the orchestra was loud in the first movement and slow in the final, he remained unfazed. After several well-deserved curtain calls, he bid his audience goodnight with a pristinely rendered “Sarabande” from Bach’s Second Partita.

If the Symphony’s Brahms left me just slightly chilly, I could not have been more enthused by their Bartok. This Concerto is in fact a five-movement symphonic work, and owes its confusing name, according to the composer, to his virtuosic treatment of each instrumental section. The “Introduction” was a brass tour de force, and the second movement, “Giuoco delle coppie” a pas de deux, with pairs of oboes, bassoons, clarinets, flutes and trumpets dancing through in intervals of (respectively) thirds, sixths, sevenths, fifths and seconds. The “Elegia”, a movement full of mourning, features the saddest piccolo solo the world has ever known, and Bartok’s characteristic mixed meter and lush string sounds figure heavily in the following “Intermezzo interrotto”, which had a lovely organic feel and clarity of delineation. The finale, bookended by an epic “perpetuum mobile” style flurry of strings, accelerating into a raucous festival of gestures and motives. I loved everything about what the Symphony brought to this work and how they were led by veteran partner and conductor Peter Oundjian. Without ever drawing the least bit of unnecessary intention to himself, Oundjian deftly negotiated the orchestra through a difficult work in which they clearly feel very at home. Not only were their lines clean and beautiful, but the many themes and layers were clearly defined, their approach was stylistically spot-on, and their sound here left nothing at all to be desired.

After thunderous applause and Oundjian’s surprising announcement that the Toronto Symphony’s last appearance at the Konzerthaus had been back in 1983, the orchestra played the superlatively lush “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations as an encore. Having offered such a richly varied, generous and accomplished performance, it would be surprising should even a fraction of that time be allowed to pass before another visit.