For her second week of concerts with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Susanna Mälkki juxtaposed works by Mozart and Richard Strauss, a selection that makes sense given the latter’s life-long admiration for Mozart’s genius. It bore the rather vague title “In the Footsteps of Le bourgeois gentilhomme”. 

Todd Cope, Susanna Mälkki and the OSM
© Antoine Saito

Strauss references Baroque music in his Der Bürger als Edelmann. The history of the suite, reassembling music written between 1911 and 1917, is more than convoluted. The opus has its origins in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s idea of reviving Molière's 1670 comédie-ballet, simplifying its storyline, but introducing a Commedia dell'arte troupe, and topping everything with a freshly written one-act opera called Ariadne auf Naxos. After the quasi-flop of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s endeavour, Ariadne was separated out and the play’s ending was brought closer to Molière’s original. Strauss extended the accompanying music for the play and later extracted a suite from this incidental score. Overall, it was an experience that he wasn’t very happy with (“I would suggest that we stop doctoring it,” he wrote at some point ) and the suite is certainly not one of his great opuses.

Nevertheless, it has its merits and Mälkki, relying on a group of capable instrumentalists, did bring them out, underlying both Strauss’ ability to portray characters and situations with just a few strokes and his extraordinary talent for orchestration, even when only a smaller ensemble is involved. In the Overture, the Paris home of the nouveau riche Monsieur Jourdain is described by a series of semiquavers clearly played by the strings accompanied by piano, while the owner of the house makes his entrance via pompous brass clamour. The Fencing Master is represented by ironical bravura embellishments played by a combination of trombone and trumpet arguing with the piano. The Entry and Dance of the Tailors features a colourful violin solo, flawlessly played by concertmaster Andrew Wann. The Entry of Cléonte section and the two dances that preceded it – a Courante and a Minuet – were directly inspired by music that Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote for Molière’s play Le bourgeois gentilhomme. As intended, they sounded both Baroque and modern.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the OSM
© Antoine Saito

Finally, The Dinner includes, besides a moving cello solo (Anna Burden), a series of expertly connected quotes – from Das Rheingold or from Strauss’ own Don Quixote and Rosenkavalier – associated with various courses. A specialist in contemporary music – since her days leading the Ensemble intercontemporain – the Finnish conductor used her baton with precise and elegant gestures but did not bring any particular insights to the work. The transparency of the writing was made evident, but hints of flamboyance and grotesque were quite muted.

The rendition of Mozart’s marvellous Clarinet Concerto sounded similarly distant. The orchestra’s principal clarinet, Todd Cope, played immaculately. Nonetheless, the dialogue between clarinet and strings was tame; caesurae were not tension builders. The sense of constant back-and-forth between gaiety and sorrow, expansiveness and restrain was not made obvious enough. Everything was rather defined by overreaching froideur.

This performance was reviewed from OSM's video stream