The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s ingenious and engaging Romantic Lieder program comprised four works central to German (and Austrian) romanticism and post-romanticism. The concert’s first half contrasted Isolde’s transforming love into death in the orchestral version of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The second half opened with Schubert’s impassioned Unfinished Symphony and its pre-Romantic yearning for contentment and, ultimately, serenity before concluding with the autumnal nostalgia of Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder.

The concert was being filmed and recorded for broadcast so the orchestra’s full complement of players were not only decked out in their finest regalia but also on their best musical behaviour. This was evident in the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s revolutonary Tristan und Isolde. From the opening hushed chords of the Prelude, the sheer plastic and transparent beauty of the ensemble’s rich sonority was mightily impressive. Conductor Kent Nagano ably underscored the work’s subtle harmonic shifts and adjustments while maintaining an admirable balance of collective textures. Yet throughout there was a near total absence of dramatic energy and involvement. Indeed for all its surface beauty, the performance appeared inhabited by a palpable emotional and expressive detachment. The phrasing, its direction and impulsion especially, lacked any feeling of sustained intensity.

After a major rearrangement of chairs and music-stands, the full team of OSM strings offered an often riveting reading of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Nagano seemed here a man transformed if not quite transfigured. The technical expertise and class of the playing was only matched by the string ensemble’s musical commitment. Even when divided into sections, and brilliantly led by the string sextet, the OSM strings’ depth of sound and tonal opulence highlighted Schoenberg’s uncompromisingly lush post-romantic language while never losing the work’s internal pulsation or thread. Nagano’s reading emphasised the work’s harmonic richness that not only harked back to Wagner’s Liebestod but that was so fundamental to its structural integrity. Though he occasionally buried individual voices, Nagano’s interpretation benefited from outstanding solos most notably from concertmaster Andrew Wan whose inspired ponticello articulation was rivalled by Neal Gripp’s glowing viola solos.

After the interval, Nagano and the OSM offered a somewhat disappointing and stolid version of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The tension-filled opening movement appeared heavy, vertical and unvarying rather than alive to its numerous internal musical twists and dramatic contrasts. The second movement fared little better, retaining both its weight of phrase and tonal opaqueness. The scene was set for a final transformation; that from Schubert to Richard Strauss, from pre-Romanticism to post-Romanticism.

Radiant of tone and appearance, the Swedish soprano Miah Persson proceeded to demonstrate why she is justly regarded as one of the world’s foremost lyric sopranos. Her sumptuous and richly-coloured voice floated over the demanding tessitura of “Frühling” with unfailing suppleness of phrase and glorious vocal freedom. If anything “September” was even more impressive, the reading expressive and touching in its simplicity and haunting in its evocative melancholy. The central core of the voice has gained body and roundness without sacrificing neither verbal clarity and eloquence nor compromising the ease of production. Here, as elsewhere, Nagano and his orchestral charges were largely attentive to his soloist’s musical intentions.

The mysterious, ungainly but oh so beautiful “Beim Schlafengehen” allowed Persson to reveal a different palette of vocal colours and an unerring and unnerving sense of phrase. The warm glow of the voice and Persson’s technical mastery and the homogeneity of the emission were only equalled by the musicality and expressive word painting she was able to command. And so to the sublime final song; “Im Abendrot”. Strauss was over 80 when he wrote this wistful glance back at a full and rewarding life and forward to the approaching final curtain. In a poignant reading charcterised by a seamless legato and a relaxed vocal emission, Persson was able to infinitely vary her vocal colour and suspend the final word – “Töd” (Death) – as if drawing a final breath. It was the culmination of an interpretation that served as a constant source of wonder. Miah Persson’s interpretation was the finest, most refined and musically moving vocal performance heard in Montreal for some time. Indeed, she transformed the evening into one of transfigured beauty.