A concert made up entirely of Brahms symphonies is not such a common thing, but the Orchestre Metropolitain offered one tonight, as the first installment of their Brahms weekend. It was a concert in the old Viennese tradition, from a time when concerts often featured multiple symphonies. In his opening remarks conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin even mentioned the Viennese seating arrangement of the orchestra, with the string basses arranged in a line along the back.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

Inside the Maison Symphonique tonight the great tragic Symphony no. 1 in C minor of Brahms erupted into life, driven forward by incessant timpani strikes, and placed at a very comfortable and thoughtful tempo by Nézet-Séguin. One can sense the immense tension in the opening strains of the introduction, even without knowing the story of Brahms’s difficulty in producing his premiere symphony. A man who was ever looking backwards in time, Brahms was constantly haunted by the colossal figure of Beethoven at his back. What was the nature of the symphony after Beethoven? In fact, it took Brahms over twenty years to complete his first symphony. He sent his first drafts to Clara Schumann as he did with many of his works, drafts which curiously lacked the ponderous introduction and began straight away at the boisterous exposition. The introduction was added later, as suggested by Clara whose wisdom Brahms always held in the highest esteem.

Brahms’s tendency to look backwards and find influence in the old forms of previous masters is clearly on display in this First Symphony. In fact, he was so rooted in the technical practices of voice-leading and counterpoint that, when assessing a new work by a colleague, Brahms would often cover up the middle voices with his fingers and examine only the bass and melody. Both voices were equally important in his music. With the Orchestre Metropolitain’s bass section facing their instruments straight into the audience, I expected to hear a full, hefty sound, but in fact the balance all night was lacking in the low register. The bass, for Brahms, is the very foundation of his architectural design, and tonight the audience was only offered a vague impression of what was being played in that register. The acoustic balance, and the energy of the sound overall was a bit stifled tonight, and many of Brahms’s transitions, some of which are quite nebulous already, were dull and lacking expression.

The violin solo of the second movement was beautifully executed by concertmaster Yukari Cousineau – her sound delicately colored by the horn and rich with expressive vibrato, easily heard in the hall above the orchestra.

The most challenging problem in performing Brahms is finding the right balance between an intellectual and emotional approach. Brahms was a man of intense devotion to the technical aspects of the compositional craft, a man who united entire symphonies with small motivic germs. However, at the same time, he was an artist who captured the drama, tragedy and joy of human existence in his work. One must find a way to embrace both these sides of the master in order to offer a truly great interpretation. If Kent Nagano is often accused of being occasionally academic-minded, Yannick Nézet-Séguin could be similarly accused of being mostly emotionally-minded in his interpretations. As always, Nézet-Séguin offered all of his expressive energy to the audience and created quite a spectacle, but the delicate attention to the balance of motives, pacing of large-scale formal divisions and tempo was engulfed by his youthful zeal, which at times seems to hinder the actual music making. After the final accelerando into the coda of the last movement in the First Symphony, a tempo was reached which was impossibly fast - one would have much difficulty finding any recording at that tempo. The result was a sharp, jagged horn sound and sloppy string articulation. Nevertheless, impressed by the wild pageantry presented to them, the audience rose to their feet immediately.

The Symphony no. 2 in D major, the more lighthearted and pastoral brother of the First, began well although the balance was an issue – most prominent at all times was the first violin section, despite the musical context. A good opening tempo was also set for the finale, which began attacca (with immediate attack) after the third movement. This quickly changed as Nézet-Séguin began to accelerate almost incessantly, rendering many musical gestures completely breathless. His tempi throughout the movement were in general overly boisterous and uncontrolled, and many major formal and harmonic landmarks, such as the recapitulation, were simply glossed over without proper weight and recognition.

The Orchestre Metropolitain is doing a lot of things right. Their growth as an ensemble over the years has been truly remarkable, and their community engagement and unique programming is some of the most impressive work in the province. They have built a strong provincial following and have legions of supporters. However, it seems as though the audience stands to applaud at the end not so much for the musically thoughtful interpretation as crafted by the maestro, but for the sheer spectacle of the event and Nézet-Séguin’s unfettered conducting style. In these times we need to be both blown away by the music’s expressivity and the immense genius of the content itself.