If you like your Beethoven clean, precise and streamlined, you should go hear Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra perform the First and Seventh Symphonies, along with the Berg Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory at the Maison Symphonique. If, however, you prefer your Beethoven heavy with the weight of history, laden with the difficulty of being human, you may as well stay home with your old Furtwängler LPs, because you won’t hear that Beethoven with Nagano at the podium.

Kent Nagano © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano
© Felix Broede

I don’t mean to denigrate Nagano’s conducting: the audience loved it, the sound is stylish and sexy, and, let’s face it, it’s pretty difficult to ruin Beethoven. But, in my opinion, Nagano’s is a sanitized Beethoven, bereft of Beethovenian grief and neurosis, in short, a Beethoven lacking something essential.

That being said, the First Symphony was lovely. Nagano seemed to be going for a quasi-authentic period sound, and in this respect he succeeded. Light and airy, a classical elegance redolent of Haydn infused the performance. The wind lines were beautifully delineated in the first movement, as was the fugal opening of the second movement. The playful syncopations and chromaticism in the third movement were carefully controlled, avoiding any foreshadowing of Beethoven’s later, more disturbing syncopations and dissonances. The fourth movement was similarly light, clear and playful.

From the world of classical elegance, the OSM dove directly into the eerie yet beautiful expressionism of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935). For reasons unknown, the programmed soloist Christian Tetzlaff was replaced by Viviane Hagner, who tackled this enormously difficult part with sensitivity and virtuosic energy.

Berg’s last work, the Concerto was dedicated “to the memory of an angel”, the angel being Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler (wife of the composer Gustav Mahler, who died in 1911) and Walter Gropius, the famous Viennese architect, founder of the Bauhaus. Manon had died of polio at the age of 18, and the work speaks to both her youth and beauty, and the tragedy of her illness and death. Musicologists believe that there is a second, hidden program concerning Berg’s affair with the sister of the Austrian novelist Franz Werfel, whom, coincidentally, Alma eventually married.

One of Berg’s twelve-tone works, the concerto is nevertheless aurally quite accessible, due in part to the composer’s use of musical quotations. In the final movement, for example, he quotes Es ist genug from Bach’s Cantata no. 60: this was one of the most moving moments in the performance, coming as it does after an intensely dissonant and grief-laden outpouring of agony in the orchestra, during which a simple waltz-like theme from the first movement is recalled. The use of the Bach quote provides a sense of coming to terms with memory and grief; it is followed by a lullaby-esque melody (again, a quote – this time a Corinthian folk song) that brings the work to a peaceful close.

One thing I admire about Nagano is the way he speaks to the audience. For instance, after telling us he loved us (“Je vous adore”) he explained that the concert was being recorded as part of a cycle of live recordings of the Beethoven symphonies (for this reason he was hoping for less coughing from the audience). After the intermission, he explained the setup for Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory. This rarely heard work celebrates the defeat of Napoleon by the English at the Battle of Vitoria: a strange choice to perform in Quebec, where recently the non-French word “pasta” was ordered to be removed from a restaurant menu! In any case, musicians were placed in the choir – the “English” on the left, the “French” on the right. Bass drums emulated canon fire, and noisemakers imitated rifles, while brass and winds played quaint war-like tunes. Nagano joked that the OSM provided free earplugs to the audience members seated near the offstage musicians (who returned to their place on the stage before the first movement was over). The only thing I can really say about this piece is that it’s not surprising that it’s rarely performed.

And finally, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Famously dubbed by Wagner “the apotheosis of the dance”, this piece definitely had the orchestra rollicking. But the tempi were so fast, I don’t see how anyone could possibly dance without spinning out of control. The second movement is marked Allegretto, but is often played at a more funereal tempo; Nagano kept it light, avoiding any connotations of tragedy. The fourth movement was extremely driven, and the audience loved it, jumping to their feet the second it was over.

Nagano’s Beethoven has its virtues: clarity, precision, enormous energy, lyricism and playfulness. I just wished sometimes for a little more grit, a little more heaviness, a little less fear of getting its hands dirty.