It's always interesting to hear non-English orchestras and conductors playing Elgar. Daniel Barenboim, for example, has established a strong tradition with his Staatskapelle Berlin, as heard at the BBC Proms this summer. Here in Paris, on the last leg of their first international tour, there was the opportunity to hear the Orchestre Métropolitain and Yannick Nézet-Séguin fully embrace the Enigma Variations in a heart-on-sleeve rendition that was as English as roast beef. Paired with a francophone first half of Berlioz and Saint-Saëns, the Montréal orchestra paid its respects to its twin cultural influences.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© François Goupil

Fellow Québécoise Marie-Nicole Lemieux was the sensuous soloist in Berlioz's song cycle Les Nuits d'été, her lustrous contralto cranked up to full throttle for Sur les lagunes. Sensitive colouring of text was paramount, phrasing in great arcs, nowhere more overwhelming than the great climactic phrase “J'arrive du paradis” in Le Spectre de la rose. A generous performer, she delivered her calls of “Reviens!” in Absence up to the balcony of the Philharmonie, later addressing each side of the hall. This was also a performance of tremendous stillness in the central songs. Lemieux lightened the tone for the frothier outer numbers, reserving a naughty twinkle in her eye for Nézet-Séguin during L'Île inconnue. The OM didn't quite sparkle here, lacking vivacity in what felt like an earthbound voyage. Elsewhere, however, smoky clarinets and airy flute caught my ear in Villanelle and veiled strings caressed Le Spectre de la rose, taken at a daringly slow tempo.

The afternoon's second soloist was Jean-Guihen Queyras, launching straight into the parlando introduction to Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto no.1 in A minor after the orchestra's dramatic opening chord. Queyras' light timbre was like butterscotch to Lemieux's burnt caramel and his delicacy of touch and eloquence made for an engaging performance. Nézet-Séguin and the OM were attentive partners, the graceful minuet of the Allegretto con moto introduced by pianissimo strings, Queyras responding in kind with the most elegant phrasing. Nézet-Séguin drove the orchestral accompaniment to add gutsy symphonic sweep to the rousing finale, which Queyras dowsed in icy sul ponticello and spiccato effects in his Dutilleux encore.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jean-Guihen Queyras and the Orchestre Métropolitain
© François Goupil

Nézet-Séguin put the OM itself in the spotlight for the Enigma Variations, displaying obvious pride in his charges, beaming at them, spurring them on. After a charming, relaxed portrayal of Alice, the composer's wife, the opening portraits of Elgar's “friends pictured within” were bristling with larger than life character: RBT (Richard Baxter Townshend) featured perky oboe; WMB (William Meath Baker) was boisterous to a fault; the timpani roles in Troyte (Arthur Troyte Griffith) were dramatic; the woodwind rubatos in WN (Winifred Norbury) perhaps a little too calculated.

And then came Nimrod, emerging out of near silence in the strings and building to an open-hearted – and tear-jerking – climax. That was the point where Nézet-Séguin's sincere belief in this music struck home. Dorabella's halting stutters were affectionately pointed. GRS' variation is less about the organist of Hereford Catherdal – George Robertson Sinclair – than his bulldog, Dan, tumbling down the bank into the River Wye, the OM double bass scrabbling furiously along the back of the platform. There was great cello and viola warmth to BGN (Basil George Nevinson), a few indulgent portamentos notwithstanding. In the Romanza, the second timpanist rattled the skins with small metal hammers to replicate the sound of the engines of the ocean liner taking the mysterious *** off to distant lands. There was bluff swagger to the finale – depicting Elgar himself – with a stirring contribution from the Philharmonie's organ, its pipes bathed in red light, operated from a bizarre console, curved and gleaming like a white spaceship.

After such an emotional outpouring, a touch of French reserve, the OM's mellow horn leading the dance in Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte as a poised encore.