Francis Tovey is said to have ranked Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor along with Schubert's C Major Symphony and the four symphonies of Brahms as among the “greatest and purest of this art-form since Beethoven”. Violinist Nikolaj Znaider, conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, provided a living example of why he might have been right. In a gripping and intense performance, they laid bare the expressive contours of the work as we held our breath in anticipation.

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

Although the Seventh doesn’t have the soaring themes of optimism in the Sixth, the irrepressible lyricism of the Eighth, and certainly not the folk appeal of the Ninth, it does have a depth of character and charismatic turns of phrase not found in any of the others. The serious opening statement of the first movement on low strings unequivocally lays the foundation for the tragic nature of the work. Although a flurry on flutes and then clarinets takes the movement on a momentary sojourn into cheerful lyricism and idyllic freshness, the sense of foreboding hangs in the air. After a number of tortured twists and turns, which the OSM handled with superb dexterity and sensitivity, the movement finishes in a subdued tone, as if now resigned to its fate.

The second movement Poco adagio is a floating statement of rustic contentment on woodwinds with immense charm. As the horn embellishments lull us into a sense of natural calm, as if gliding on a placid lake, the strings start stirring up ripples of nervousness, injecting temporary tension and turmoil before the movement settles into calm again.

The Scherzo third movement consists mainly of a recurrent waltz-like and very hummable motif that seems to keep moving forward inexorably. The OSM’s treatment was uplifting, elegant and well nuanced. I, for one, had to suppress an urge to stand up for a spin! As the movement digressed into an interlude of anxiety, the orchestra seemed momentarily to have lost its way, leaving a few loose ends which the dance rhythm quickly rescued.

Almost without a pause, Maestro Znaider propelled the orchestra into the high drama of the final Allegro movement. The combined forces of all sections of the orchestra flexed their muscles to deliver the full impact of the underlying sense of tragedy, quickly overwhelming fleeting moments of brightness and lyricism.

In the first half of the evening, Znaider had opened with Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in B flat major, K207, playing the solo part as well as conducting. Written when the composer was only a teenager, the work does not provide much opportunity for virtuosic display or depth of emotion. Although the rendition was respectful and proper, Znaider appeared a little like a fish out of water, trying hard to make an impression and only half succeeding.

On the other hand, he accurately captured the wide range of moods depicted in Smetana’s symphonic poem about the River Vltava from Má vlast. Tracing the river’s meandering from a trickle on tip-toe to a torrent in full blast, the orchestra skilfully created a sense of flux in vivid mimicry of the river’s physical progress without losing control of the wild and rapid drift. On this evidence, Znaider seems a more talented conductor than soloist.