The most recent performance recorded by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (in an empty Symphony House) was labelled “Music and Poetry”, a title that was a bit misleading. In these times of upheaval and inquietude, the hour-long presentation was meant to allow listeners to “experience” – in the words of conductor Alexander Shelley – “three very different visions of composers engaging with death”. Deciding to perform the works in reverse chronological order, thus placing Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration at the very end, maybe the programme tried to convey the hope that, despite the expressed sadness and grief, there will indeed be light at the end of the tunnel.

Alexander Shelley
© Orchestre symphonique de Montréal

Together with Malven, also composed in 1948, the songs later published as Vier Letzte Lieder are Strauss’ final completed works. The composition is steeped in regret and acceptance but definitely not in despair. It prominently features a solo horn (played with intensity by Denys Derome) in what might have been a tribute to the composer’s late father. In bringing forward the emotion imbued in Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff’s texts, Adrianne Pieczonka relied on her radiant if not tremendously distinguished instrument and on her significant experience as an interpreter of Strauss’ operatic roles. She occasionally sounded too heavy, struggling with the German consonants and the limits of her vocal range. Nevertheless, she exquisitely shaped the long musical lines and navigated with ease among the gorgeous, not-always-resolved dissonances. Shelley and the OSM painted with great care the details of the musical soundscape, allowing Pieczonka's voice to shine. The last three orchestral chords, matching perhaps the three syllables “A-bend-roth”, followed by the piccolos evoking one more time the chirping birds, were heart-wrenching.

A motif, timidly referred to in Abendroth, was heard in all its glory in Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung, composed six decades earlier. Describing an artist suffering on his deathbed, reminiscing about past events of his life, and realising that the ideal he thrived to embody can only be attained in eternity, the tone poem is full of colourful harmonies. From brass fanfares to delicate string passages portraying instantly recognisable Straussian love scenes to intricate contrapuntal dialogues, the OSM instrumentalists handled every sequence with aplomb while Shelley guided them through the myriad motivic transformations. Truth be told, the experience would have been more beneficial for the online audience if the cameramen had focused on individual members or sections of the ensemble – concertmaster Andrew Wan, flautist Timothy Hutchins, the double basses, Pierre-Vincent Plante playing the cor anglais – at the point they were starting to make their remarkable contributions, rather than in the middle of their statements.

Between the Strauss bookends, Shelley led an ephemeral reading of Sibelius’ popular Valse triste. In the given context, the score sounded – with the eerie, unsettled harmonies of the ghostly main theme and the confused, falsely-confident subsidiary motifs intoned by strings or woodwinds – even more like a musical equivalent of a Munch-ian drawing.

This performance was reviewed from OSM's video stream