Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a renowned crowd-pleaser. Consequently, expectations are high whenever it's programmed. The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal conducted by its music director Rafael Payare met the challenge, and then some.

Rafael Payare
© Antoine Saito

For the Beethoven, as well as two works by Brahms, the orchestra was joined by its chorus, situated in the Maison symphonique's horseshoe-shaped loft. Choristers were distanced from one another in the middle, but not so at the sides. This meant that many singers were singing across the stage, rather than directly out to the audience. Since the chorus numbered less than one hundred, this choice was problematic. To bring off the Beethoven Ninth when the orchestral forces, playing modern instruments, are almost equal in number to the choristers is inherently challenging. Furthermore, the vocal soloists were placed behind the orchestra. This location did not serve them well in terms of their projection, with the notable exception of bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green. That said, Payare by and large kept the overall balance in check.

Up first was Nänie by Brahms. The choir was impressively resonant at higher dynamic levels, less so when singing softly. In this work, the the music didn't come off the page. Brahms' Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) was better handled. The a cappella sections were impressive. Albert Brouwer contributed a nice little flute solo. The second violins and violas made the most of Brahms beautifully sculpted inner lines. Despite occasional strident outbursts, a laudable degree of musicality was achieved. This work infused the audience with a sense of tranquillity.

On to the main event, Beethoven's monumental Ninth. A suspenseful introduction led to an impressive tutti section at the outset. The OSM was clearly more at home with this standard repertoire than with the Brahms selections that comprised the first half. Payare sculpted some lovely long arcs through many sections of the first movement. Kudos to second trumpet Amy Horvey for her resonant playing at the bottom of her instrument's range. An abundance of vim and verve came across in this movement.

Chœur and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
© Antoine Saito

In the second movement, of all the instrumentalists only the timpani's first note of the dotted quarter, eighth, quarter rhythmic motif is marked sforzando. Many sections of the orchestra mimicked the timpanist with a strong initial accent, while others did not, which made for a somewhat disjointed interpretation. The violins were too short and dry with their articulation relative to their string section colleagues in the sempre pianissimo passages of the Scherzo section. There were some glorious moments offered up by the bassoons and horns in the Trio. As was the case in the opening movement, the phrasing in the slow movement contained elegantly crafted elongated contours. The second violins and violas dovetailed nicely when they shared melodic material. 

Near the outset of the finale, the cellos and double basses could have offered up even more intensity. Occasionally, some of the basses were a tad behind. The viola section was particularly vibrant when its turn came to take up the Ode to Joy theme. When the piccolo was finally allowed to join the party, their line floated sublimely over top of the orchestra. Speedo Green was a tour de force in his solo, throughout its wide vocal range. Regrettably, the cadence immediately preceding the 6/8 section was blaring and shrill. In contrast, the tenors and basses of the chorus, in a sustained and exposed upper range passage, maintained a resonant and unforced tone quality. Likely this was due in no small measure to the coaching of their new chorus master, Phillipe Bourque. When Karina Gauvin, Sophie Harmsen and Frédéric Antoun joined in, the resultant quartet blended beautifully. Payare drove the forces through to a rousing conclusion, a real barn-burner. An invigorating evening for performers and audience alike.

****1