L’Orchestre Métropolitain is playing four concerts with two programs this week, splitting their time between Montréal and Verdun, a marathon which is to culminate in recording sessions. With such a hefty schedule the orchestra might have chosen light repertoire, but valiantly did the opposite, programming symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner. In addition to these works, the orchestra made their offering to the Montréal Bach Festival by presenting a work by J.S. Bach before each of the symphonies.

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

This evening’s concert included J.S. Bach’s Cantata no. 51, for soprano, trumpet, strings and continuo, and Mahler’s Symphony no. 4.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is always well received in the city which gestated his talent, and thus he has no qualms in taking time from his Music Directorship in Philadelphia and healthy guest conducting appearances around the globe to give concerts with his Orchestre Métropolitain. It is an orchestra which he has led for 12 years, and he undoubtedly has a unique relationship with these musicians, arguably a more established and habitual interaction than with his new orchestra in Philadelphia. Subsequently, the orchestra is willing to adapt to all of his interpretational ideas.

The orchestra for the Bach was reduced; soprano Suzie LeBlanc was at Nézet-Séguin’s side and trumpet soloist Stéphane Beaulac was in the back, behind the cellos. As Bach’s music bloomed, it became quickly apparent that Beaulac’s trumpet, although refined and elegant in tone and style, would barely cut through the timbre, and appeared less like a solo voice than simply another member of the counterpoint. Suzie LeBlanc had a similar problem. A warm, gentle voice warbled, almost casually, and at all times the audience was forced to strain their ears to simply hear her. Listening for diction became secondary to simply hearing the pitches, especially in the low range. Extended melismas abounded, as difficult in Bach’s time as today, and LeBlanc seemed to find the most peculiar moments to breathe, which often threatened to derail her phrasing. Meanwhile, L’Orchestre Métropolitain churned on, thickly woven contrapuntal strains pouring forth, led by a very active Nézet-Séguin. The third movement featured solo cello on the continuo line, which sounded rich and woody, closer to the timbre of a double bass than a cello, thanks to the constant support from the organ. In the last movement, LeBlanc picked up a score from the ground to read while singing – a rather unsettling gesture. Throughout, her vocal lines did not sound like the interjections of a member of the musical conversation, but more like those of a casual spectator.

After only nineteen minutes of Bach, the first half ended rather abruptly, though programming another work during such a marathon would have proven difficult logistically.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 was completed in the year 1900, though it is hard to call this a 20th-century work. The audience at the première felt similarly – expecting a work as outré as the symphony which preceded this one, they were offered a “short” and arguably more Classical work from Mahler, who thinned the orchestral texture, utilized percussion less brutally, and included a delightful song portraying heavenly life for the finale.

Nézet-Séguin led an unsteady beginning to the symphony, flutes and sleigh bells struggling to find unity. Quickly, however, the tempo was regained. When it comes to music like Mahler’s which is rich in tempo changes and mood shifts, an interpreter can quite easily become overindulgent in these indications. Nézet-Séguin’s tempi, especially the slow ones, quite often seemed as though they would grind to a halt in the first movement and others, completely eradicating any sense of large-scale form. These kind of extreme tempo fluctuations put great demands on the musicians technically, and it was impressive to hear these players usually manage to keep pace with such meanderings.

There was some fantastic playing from the brass – an exceptionally solid horn section provided stability and foundation, ornamented by some immensely expressive solos from Louis-Philippe Marsolais. Stéphane Beaulac’s principal trumpet playing was equally as impressive – bright in tone with impeccable intonation and style. The second movement featured concertmaster Yukari Cousineau, who played two different violins, one of which was tuned up a quarter-tone. One does not necessarily perceive an “out of tuneness” but simply a brighter, sharper tone. Her solos as well as associate concertmaster Marcelle Mallette’s were exemplary.

The third movement ambled about, drifting dangerously close to stagnancy. Lise Beauchamp’s oboe broke the spell, however, and blossomed delicately into the hall. Her sound is reminiscent of old European recordings, a timbre which is more reedy and organic than many of her North American contemporaries, and it suited the Mahler well.

Suzie LeBlanc returned for the finale of the Mahler, though Nézet-Séguin situated her at the back of the orchestra. Her voice had to mingle with the sound of the whole orchestra before reaching the audience. If we couldn’t hear her in the Bach, the problem was exacerbated in the Mahler – her voice could have used the head-start that would have come from standing at Nézet-Séguin’s side. The beautiful morendo at the end of the work was thoughtfully performed by the musicians, though tragically disturbed by a hearing aid gone haywire. The audience was pleased, though markedly less enthusiastic this time as compared to other Orchestre Métropolitain concerts.