The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal opened their 2014 offering with an evening of Beethoven. Kent Nagano was at the helm leading the orchestra in the Second and Fourth Symphonies, with Romanian pianist Radu Lupu the soloist in the Fourth Piano Concerto. With microphones hanging in every possible angle over the stage, this was to be the completion of the OSM’s ongoing recording project of the complete Beethoven symphonies. Here’s hoping that the final recording takes the best cuts from all three nights, since the symphonies on stage had to compete with a cacophony in the hall (emphasis on cough), an added soundtrack rarely avoided during flu season in Montreal.

Extraneous noises aside, the drama on stage was enough to command attention during the symphonies. With a score open on his music stand, Nagano showed no signs of paying it any attention other than the odd page-turn. His style was involved, frequently moving around his podium and advancing to its very front edge as if coaching and coaxing the players. The division of the violins to either side of the stage produced a conversational effect, but kept Nagano on his toes, as he was not likely to miss directing a single entrance. I’m quite sure I even saw both his feet leave the ground more than once as he drove home an accented offbeat. Despite all this action, tempos were remarkably regular and the overall style was restrained and clear when considered in the context of the multitude of interpretations of these symphonies. All in all the impression was of an orchestra and conductor who have gotten used to each other and are comfortable enough in their interactions to push certain elements of interpretation particularly in the lively moments – to an exciting level of performance while maintaining a veneer of control and transparency.

The Fourth Symphony yielded a well-rehearsed ensemble, tight in all the right ways, and perfectly attentive to Nagano’s energetic leadership. The first movement went along at a good clip after the Adagio, displaying a full and impressive range of dynamics. One of the only opportunities for stillness apart from the introduction – the pianissimo exchange between violins and timpani right before the re-entrance of the main theme – was less effective than it may have been for Nagano’s continued large gestures through the passage (though the recorded version won’t feature such visual distraction). The second movement (Adagio) moved only slightly more than was demanded by the singing lines and expressive appoggiaturas, though the heartbeat rhythm which underpins the whole was effectively constant throughout. The third and fourth movements were played with articulate and nuanced energy, and great humour, the quick notes in the fourth coming off with the fascinating and elaborate precision of clockwork but never losing their joyful character.

The Second Symphony was the highlight of the evening. Technical precision, seamless blending and full-blooded energy combined to produce the rare effect of musical transcendence, particularly difficult in a hall such as the Maison Symphonique (despite its enviable acoustics) whose brightly lit auditorium never quite allows me to forget where I am. After the bracing conclusion to the first movement I restrained myself from the urge to applaud while others took the opportunity to cough. The second movement found that flexibility between moving and lingering on the most singing melodies and poignant harmonies that I missed in the Fourth Symphony. A comedic Scherzo suggested a buffo style and made the most of sudden contrasts and syncopations, while the fourth movement was pure dashing excitement beginning to end.

Considering the well executed and clear interpretations of the two symphonies, Lupu’s contribution to the evening was somewhat disappointing. I had been well prepared for his unsmiling and undemonstrative stage presence (it seems to be his most oft-commented upon quality) but his overall humourless performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto wanted less pedal, more clarity in the trills and passagework, and a level of energy and engagement that was altogether lacking. Redeeming moments came in the very opening solo, played with striking improvisatory nonchalance, and in the second movement, where Lupu acheived a bell-like tone and admirable pacing. The thunderous reception he received left me wondering if I had missed something, but like coughing during slow movements, Montrealers are not shy with their standing ovations.