It is barely credible, but two of Canada and Québec’s musical superstars, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux, shared the stage for the first time in thirteen years on Friday at the Maison Symphonique in Montréal. In his pre-concert remarks, the Orchestre Métropolitain’s music director talked of a series of missed rendezvous and unrealised opportunities in the past, but seemed genuinely excited and even moved that finally they were to perform together. The concert proved that the collaboration was well worth the wait.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux © Manuel Cohen
Marie-Nicole Lemieux
© Manuel Cohen

The concert was also a final 2013 anniversary tribute to both Richard Wagner (born in 1813) and Benjamin Britten (born in 1913). Indeed, it was the latter’s flamboyantly scored and stylistically eclectic Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra that got the evening off to a rousing start. As Nézet-Séguin reminded his audience, Britten originally entitled the work Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell, and the grandly eloquent opening revealed both Britten’s love of his musical heritage and his genius at orchestral painting. Each individual variation illustrated the orchestra’s sectional strengths (especially the woodwinds) and relative weaknesses (especially the cellos). Overall, Nézet-Séguin allowed his charges to play with a welcome freedom and naturalness that demonstrated that this vastly underestimated work is so much more than the obligatory “introduction to music” piece that school matinees have destined it to become.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux arrived to a roar of approval from the packed house for the first of two song cycles she was to perform with the OSM and Nézet-Séguin. Gustav Mahler shared with the poet Friedrich Rückert the knowledge of what it is to lose a child and it is precisely that shared experience that can make the cycle Kindertotenlieder both so moving and so disturbing. From the outset, Lemieux and Nézet-Séguin revealed a shared vision of the work, a communality of purpose rarely encountered. Conceived within an intimist, heart-rendingly lyrical framework (especially the opening “Nun wie die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n”), the performance had Nézet-Séguin constantly looking to his left at Lemieux and revelling in an experience of sophisticated storytelling. Technically, Nézet-Séguin underscored the work’s harmonic complexity and chiarascuro ambiance while Lemieux and her luscious mezzo offered impeccable phrasing and vocal manners, a magical mezza-voce and a complex palette of expressive colours. By the concluding “In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus, Lemieux and Nézet-Séguin had arrived at the safety and reassurance of “home” (both literally and spiritually) not in hapless resignation but in a spirit of reconciliation, not with apprehension but with a sense of ultimate appeasement.

The same prevailing intelligence, coherence and unity of vision characterised a singularly powerful interpretation of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder after the interval. Lemieux’s voice seemed to have acquired an added dimension, the legato seamless and the voice riding the crest of every orchestral wave. Apart from an occasionally swallowed vowel or squashed diphthong, this was a vocal performance to treasure. Once again Nézet-Séguin emphasised the transluscent quality of the accompaniment (particularly aided by the superb playing of first horn Louis-Philippe Marsolais and first oboe Lise Beauchamp) and the poignant lyricism of the score. The intensity of the performance (especially “Im Treibhaus” and the final “Traüme”) was based on an uncanny ability to tailor an emotional response from a unified vocal and orchestral colour and sense of phrase. The audience’s wildly enthusiastic ovation that greeted the final, hushed chords was a spontaneous response to a profoundly affecting musical interpretation.

Wagner was also featured in the concert’s final work, the prelude to Act I and Isolde’s death from his seminal opera Tristan und Isolde. Once more Nézet-Séguin offered a reading not only steeped in lyricism and layered colours, but one designed, developed and exposed as a whole with each musical phrase emanating from the previous one and linked to the succeeding one in a performance of admirable balance, direction and flow. The Orchestre Métropolitain valiantly accepted their conductor’s challenge, and though string textures were occasionally somewhat thin, they were never found wanting. In fact, they closed with a wonderfully satisfying musical and emotional climax. To hear and see Nézet-Séguin perform these excerpts from the opera certainly made one wish to hear him conduct a full performance of the work – perhaps with Lemieux as Brangäne. One wonders if we will have to wait another thirteen years for that rendezvous?