This latest Orchestre symphonique de Montréal programme was beautifully conceived, with works by Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz, the poster boys of 19th century Romanticism, at its core. The evening’s other work was the creation of an OSM commission which had been designed, according to conductor Kent Nagano in a short introduction, as a musical bridge between the three featured composers. And so the table was set and the feast awaited.

Kent Nagano © B. Ealovega
Kent Nagano
© B. Ealovega

Appropriately, the concert began with the Prelude to Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera. From the outset of the brass chorale, this spiritual, mystical music displayed the orchestra at its burnished best. Layers of plangent tone and unified sonority emerged in textured, almost sculpted, lines that commanded attention, but never fully engaged the emotions. The orchestra’s massed forces sounded on their very best behaviour, doubtless inspired by the prospect of the filming of the concert’s repeat performance on Wednesday before a live television audience.

The young Swiss composer, David Philip Hefti, comes with a distinguished pedigree; a pupil of Rihm and Halffter among others, and he is a recent winner of the prestigious Ernst von Siemens Foundation for Music composers' prize. His short Adagio is subtitled Beziehungsweisen (translated as Correlated Melodies) and though Hefti integrated some thematic material from the three other works on the program into his eight minute piece, it was adroitly camouflaged within a very personal language that included sophisticated serial writing, various instrumental sound effects and a hauntingly beautiful English horn solo (superbly played by Pierre-Vincent Plante). The piece was perhaps too short and diffuse to act as “an atmospheric bridge” between the three other works, but it did establish the sought after ambiance of loneliness while revealing the clinical skill of the orchestra in mastering new idioms.

The first half of this long concert was devoted to Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major with local hero Marc-André Hamelin as soloist. More a symphonic poem with piano than a conventional piano concerto, the work is an exercise in thematic transformation in which each theme of the concerto’s five sections emerges from a single motif. As ever, Hamelin was technically irreproachable. He responded to the episodic, fragmented nature of this compact single movement work with an effortless mastery of form and an economy of means that belied his total commitment to the piece. The bombastic, grandiloquent pianistic gesture required by Liszt was conveyed with unerring facility yet the lyrical interludes, such as the concerto’s opening Adagio, were movingly captured. Hamelin's playing is technically assured, with an absence of any gratuitous flamboyance. It never descends into virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. His dazzling technique has increasingly become a means to an end. There is, in Hamelin's playing, an inner intensity that is intoxicating and Romantic in nature.

One of music’s mysteries is to succeed in communicating more than is printed on the page. This thought was brought repeatedly to mind after the interval, when Nagano and the orchestra tackled Berlioz’s iconic Symphonie fantastique. The symphony has a fabled history in Montreal. It was a work closely identified with Charles Dutoit, one of Nagano’s predecessors, and it has often been a barometer that measures a conductor’s affinity with French music and more specifically French Romantic music. Subtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist, it is largely autobiographical and depicts Berlioz’s obsession with the English actress Harriet Smithson. Berlioz uses a huge orchestra as a single virtuoso instrument and Nagano was fortunate that his charges rose to so many technical challenges.

Yet there remained a distance between intent and result. Despite admirable energy, Nagano never succeeded in galvanizing his orchestral forces into producing anything but a superficial account. Berlioz’s torrid, emotional landscape remained largely uncharted and unexplored. The Gothic, threatening “Marche au supplice” was revealed to be pallid, while there was a singular lack of elegance, sensuality and lilt to “Un bal”. The “Songe d’une nuit de sabbat” was certainly loud enough, but its epic sweep and grandeur were largely missing in action. Sheer sound is no substitute for expression, volume no replacement for intensity. To paraphrase Shakespeare, one of Berlioz’s favourite authors, it was a performance that was full of sound and fury, but that signified nothing.