For the opening work in Thursday night’s concert at La Maison Symphonique de Montréal – Mozart’s ever popular Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – conductor Kent Nagano drafted into the ensemble double the number of musicians usually featured in the work.  To his credit, this arrangement produced superb sonority without foregoing nimble elegance.  He must have rehearsed the outsize ensemble well, as they were self-directed most of the time, with him standing idly with his hands by his side.

Kent Nagano © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano
© Felix Broede

Both the outer movements are marked “Allegro”, but the ensemble adopted a subtly different tempo between them.  A sense of light-hearted agility pervaded the opening movement, which made the last movement sound lethargic by comparison.  The Romanze second movement was measured and dignified, sometimes bordering on being rather uninspiring.  For some reason the third movement was truncated to about half its usual length and had hardly made its mark before it was over.

Call him reactionary, regressive or renegade trying to turn back the tide of modernism at the turn of the 20th century, but it’s hard to deny that Camille Saint-Saëns produced works containing some of the finest melodies in the repertoire.  During the course of this week, Andrew Wan, a concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony, is playing all three of Saint-Saëns’ violin concertos, which will be recorded for a CD to be released later.  Among them, the third in B minor is by far the best and most mature. It’s one of several works Saint-Saëns composed for fellow composer and violinist Pablo de Sarasate which have remained popular in concerts – the other being the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Op. 28.

The plunging solo launching the first movement was heavy-handed and dark, and the high notes were squeaky. I wonder whether this was the unique character of the 1744 Bergonzi Mr Wan was said to be playing. Beyond that, the romantic lustre of the winding second theme in the rest of the movement was infectious, with the orchestra providing steady rhythmic pulse and dramatic support.

The Andantino quasi allegro second movement is more a lullaby than a lament and Mr Wan did not overplay his hand.  His dialogue with the woodwinds, first oboe and later flute and clarinet, was sensitive and tantalising. Helped by the majestic chorale on brass, the orchestra briefly hogged the limelight but was soon coaxed into submission by the soloist with his smooth talking.

The orchestra’s handling of the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, can best be described as a well-groomed gentleman with not a hair out of place and never speaking out of turn.  Kent Nagano’s delivery of the undulating rhythm was precise; the orchestra’s tone was modest and unpretentious; and dynamic contrast was perfectly balanced. There were no surprises, and certainly no vain attempt to win brownie points.

The Andante second movement was too much of a casual saunter in the park rather than a purposeful and contemplative walk through the woods, although the woodwinds provided good glimpses of introspection.  Did I detect mild cheekiness on the part of the orchestra to play fragments of the movement like a scherzo, or was I boxing shadows? The Menuetto: Allegretto third movement was well paced and not rushed, heightening a sense of dignified probity.

Entering the final leg of the symphony, marked Allegro assai, the orchestra came to its own again and reverted to being the well-groomed gentleman. Mr Nagano patiently teased out the complex structure of the movement and kept a tight rein on the interplay between the fugal and chromatic passages. The horn, in the meantime, gained the upper hand for a fleeting moment and showed its mettle.

The sound engineer recording this concert will have a hard time pruning the noises to produce the CD, as the enthusiastic audience clapped between each movement, sometimes within a split second of it finishing.  I can’t wait to hear the result.