Montreal’s favourite musical son has become something of a world favourite in recent years. The Music Director of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is also Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Principal Conductor of his native city’s Orchestre Métropolitain. With a calendar that also includes a horde of guest appearances with opera companies and other orchestras, he rarely has time to return home. He did so on Saturday, not as a conductor, but as part of a piano duet in a benefit concert for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He joined his friend and long-time piano partner Jennifer Bourdages in a program of music for “piano 4-mains”.

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

The concert was held in the refurbished Salle Bourgie whose 440 seats and user-friendly acoustics complemented the wonderful Tiffany stained-glass windows of the former Erskine and American church. Nézet-Séguin’s art has always been grounded in his humanity, and his trademark introductory remarks once again not only illustrated a depth of musical knowledge, but underscored his simplicity of approach and the naturalness of his manner. He has an innate ability to connect with his audience and the evening’s music-making was, in many ways, simply an extension of the man.

Brahms’ Op. 39 series of waltzes may have lacked the driven and rhythmic impluse often preferred but they had a lilt and movement within the bar that never altered the pieces’ shape and yet assured a liquid direction of phrase. Both Nézet-Séguin and Bourdages (who have been playing together since both were students almost 20 years ago) cherished the natural ebb and flow of these evocative works with a wonderfully nuanced range of colour and dynamics as well as perfectly matched voicing, clearly defined textures and a restrained use of pedal.

The contrast with Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye was as striking as it was welcome. French musical style, whether vocal, orchestral or instrumental, is today seldom understood or defended. If the language and its multiple challenges are at the heart of all French vocal music, the characteristic nature, form, expressive palette and especially the sonority of French orchestral and instrumental music is hardly less challenging for would-be interpreters. From the opening of a poised “Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant”, Nézet-Séguin and Bourdages depicted the fairy-tale world of childhood with a rarely encountered delicacy, simplicity and translucent sonority. The duet team made constant references to the richness of the orchestral score (especially with regard to the English horn) without ever making us yearn for it. Musical textures and articulation (both individual and combined) were again impressive, particularly in “Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes” while “Les entretiens de la Belle et la Bête” was by turns darkly brooding and mysterious, almost mystical, and contrasted beautifully with “Le jardin féérique”. Here the world of infant fantasy seemed enveloped in a tender and touching lyricism until an adroitly judged climax. As elsewhere, the complicity between the two pianists was tangible. Transitions were often achieved without visible cues and their playing was not so much a question of tempo as of a common interior pulsation. Nézet-Séguin was often unable to suppress an irresistible smile while his body language seemed to reflect the sheer joy of making music.

This joy was most evident in Schubert’s magnificent F minor Fantasia. Their interpretation had the classical virtues of form and structure but simultaneously a freedom and breadth, a lyrical expanse, that dominated this most intimate of dialogues. Each repetition of the work’s haunting opening theme was shaped and delineated with unerring expressive variety and made its final return a moment of pure emotion suspended in time.

The evening was memorable not only for being a joyous celebration of music-making; it was also (if not primarily) an object lesson in music as a communicative art. It was not only that Nézet-Séguin could enlighten as well as entertain his public by speaking to them. It was not only that Nézet-Séguin and Bourdages had something to say. It was also that they had the means to communicate it as well as their joy in their combined music-making, to an admiring audience.