If I were to describe the music one might expect to accompany the image of an English garden, the words “delicate”, “sophisticated” and “unoffending” might come to mind. Much like the watercolours found hanging in your grandmother’s bathroom, “English Garden” might suggest something pleasing but unengaging. The works on the concert of the Orchestre Métropolitain shattered these stereotypes, presenting music of great depth and emotion. As outliers of their compositional landscape, the English composers in this evening’s concert have written works that are aesthetically very different from the music of their contemporaries on the European continent. In front of an enthusiastic Montréal crowd, Yannick Nézet-Séguin led his orchestra through the varied atmospheres and moods of these works by great English composers of the early 20th century.

Stéphane Tétreault © Caroline Bergeron
Stéphane Tétreault
© Caroline Bergeron

The concert began with Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma”. One of the most frequently performed works of its kind, this piece has an interesting compositional back story. It is said that with each variation, the composer imagined how a member of his circle of friends would treat the piece’s theme. The result is a work of many characters unified by an underlying thread. The orchestra took great advantage of this, highlighting the contrasts in dynamics, colour and mood between variations. The soft, nocturnal quality of the first variation (Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer's wife) felt very different from the hurried, mysterious character of the second (Hew David Steuart-Powell). The tumultuous tuttis of the fourth variation (William Meath Baker) juxtaposed the light pizzicato of the fifth (Richard Penrose Arnold). There were some lovely solos through the work, including the lyrical cello solo in the eighth variation (Winifred Norbury), the bassoon solo against the off kilter pizzicato in the tenth (“Dorabella”), and the lonely cello against a repeating bass line in the twelfth (Basil G. Nevinson, an accomplished amateur cellist). The orchestra’s great strength in this work was their ability to navigate the many shifts in mood, from shimmering violin sustains to aggressive attacks and driving rhythms.

This was followed by the Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor performed by Stéphane Tétreault. At 20 years of age, Tétreault is a homegrown Montréal favourite. He managed technical challenges with attention to detail, singing out lyrical passages and also effectively allowing the strummed chords to ring out in the dark, mysterious first movement. The second movement was an impressive demonstration of bow control with rapid runs up and down the neck of the cello while a steady tremolo was maintained. At times, Tétreault would come out of character during the orchestral passages where he was not playing, breaking some of the emotional intensity. He seemed to get more comfortable as he progressed, working very closely with Nézet-Séguin. The third movement was a display of musicality with the solo passages entering like soft sighs. In the fourth movement, Tétreault’s playing became quite physical with quick passages and aggressive strumming, the cello in dialogue with the orchestra.

The highlight of the concert was Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 4 in F Minor, a surprising tour de force with a wide range of orchestral colours. The opening of the first movement was staggeringly large, and it was as though the work had begun part way into the symphony. Driving melodies in the strings, doubled by trombones, moved through tumultuous waves, even passing through a sober march. Beginning with high tension and dissonance, this movement gradually made its way towards a calm, harmonically stable close. The character of the second movement was mysterious and anxious, the descending pizzicato bass line supporting the violin melodies. The texture thinned out to a flute solo over the harmonies of the trombone section. Out of this lighter texture came the timpani opening and exciting changing meter of the third movement. Nézet-Séguin was able to maintain an ideal balance between clarity and passion while conducting, guiding the orchestra with accuracy while still showing that he was moved by the music. His love of his craft was evident. In the fourth movement, the theme of the work proliferated through the orchestra, the instruments uniting in massive tutti cries. This brought the work to a strong close.

This program went far beyond the expected prim and proper attitude of an English garden, presenting the emotional power and contrast of works by Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Though the music of these composers is sometimes treated as peripheral compared to other European works of the early twentieth century, Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain showed the wide range of character in this music through a compelling performance.