The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal played a formative role in my musical education. As the digital era dawned, my burgeoning CD collection included piles of discs with the OSM and Charles Dutoit, famed for the refined sound of their many recordings in the Église de Saint-Eustache that racked up awards and raised their international status. The orchestra hasn’t appeared in Europe for three decades, so this was a rare chance to catch them in London, with new Music Director Rafael Payare, on the final leg of a tour that took in Zagreb, Budapest, Vienna and Brussels. 

Rafael Payare
© Antoine Saito

The implosion of the classical music recording industry and the (acrimonious) split with Dutoit in 2002 means the OSM no longer enjoys quite such a high profile reputation as in their glory years, but they’re still a significant force and did not deserve a patchily sold house, with the Balcony off-sale, a shameful reflection on the Southbank’s feeble marketing. 

The gauzy shimmer of the Dutoit years wasn’t much in evidence here, even in Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, where Payare favoured brazen audacity over sophistication in the orchestra’s jazzy strutting. Muted trumpet and a sleazy bassoon led us down some of Paris’ seedier alleys. The veteran principal oboe’s nasal tone proved an acquired taste. Finesse came from Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, whose feathery touch caused the central Adagio assai to ripple with crystalline delicacy. His playing was immaculately tailored in the outer movements, crisp, tidy, not a hair out of place. 

Víkingur Ólafsson, Rafael Payare and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
© Antoine Saito

Samy Moussa’s Elysium gave the impressive string section a gentle warm-up at the start of the concert, where a long sequence of chords seemed to unfurl, stretching up and down via slow glissandos to create a sense of timelessness and disorientation. It’s an unhurried score that builds deliberately, tinged with brightly lit moments, including flashes of spiccato from a string quartet. 

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony proved the highlight of the evening, a darkly intense reading under Payare’s twitchy baton that dug into the work’s spirit of grim survival against adversity. It was composed in the wake of Stalin’s death, the ferocious second movement often described as a musical portrait of the dictator. Payare took it at a lightning lick, a bundle of energy on the podium. 

Rafael Payare conducts the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
© Antoine Saito

The Montreal violins displayed heavy depth, velvet rather than silk; even their pizzicatos in the third movement Allegretto were weighted with menace. Lower brass packed a wallop, nostrils flared in the finale, and the ripe solo horn motif was impressively played. But it was the woodwinds that gave this performance such a distinguished quality. Sardonic clarinet interjections and queasy piccolos underlined the dark humour, a gnarly contrabassoon growled like a Russian basso profundo oktavist, and the bassoons wailed neurotically when not providing satirical commentary. Shostakovich’s own musical monogram peppers the score, and was pounded triumphantly at the jubilant close, the OSM rewarded with a jubilant response.