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Richness, transparency and virtuosity

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
04/20/2015 -  
Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op. 36
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F minor

Stéphane Tétreault (cello)
Orchestre Métropolitain, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

S. Tétreault, Y. Nézet-Séguin

Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain is a civic ensemble which has achieved world status in barely thirty years. What is most remarkable about this orchestra is more than merely its precision, technique and discipline. Its most distinctive quality is its sound, a melding of richness and transparency which, when required, can even be dry, but is never dull (and never woolly or muddy). For concertgoers and record collectors of a certain age, the tonality is redolent of the UK’s Philharmonia Orchestra during the 1950s and their EMI recordings with emerging post-war conductors like Karajan, Giulini and Silvestri. (I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Giulini is one of the major influences on Orchestre Métropolitain’s emerging superstar conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.)

The sonic translucency was established from the first notes of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Like Robert Schumann’s Carnaval for piano, the work is literally a roman à clefs. (Had Jacqueline Susann been a composer rather than writer, she might have produced music analogous to these works, not to mention being as coy as Elgar in revealing, or not revealing, certain disguised personalities.)

The orchestra revelled in the lilting pace of the opening theme and early variations, then the sunny quality of the fourth one. Elgar is often compared to Brahms, yet his orchestration reveals strong influences from Tchaikovsky, especially Tchaikovsky in neo-classical mode, as in the sixth and tenth variations. The later variations focus on long, sustained crescendos, with a brief cello solo launching a strings episode, then chattering dialogue at one point between the winds and upper strings – as if, for a few minutes, Elgar’s various personalities might be enjoying some good old fashioned gossip.

Following the richness and finesse of the Elgar, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme was the perfect segue, another set of variations, this time with a cello soloist. And Stéphane Tétreault proved to be a most formidable soloist, a genuine virtuoso and an immaculate musician. The young soloist’s upper register in particular was astounding, particularly in the cadenza-like fifth variation. But the true success of this performance – orchestra and soloist – was that it encouraged listeners to sit back, relax and enjoy rather than analyse or indulge in even positive critique.

Following intermission, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ infrequently performed Symphony No. 4 in F minor was presented, yet another dynamic, complex and even unpredictable larger scale work. Dissonance is the operative word for the Symphony, to be sure, from the harsh opening chords, through the more lyrical but consistently dour second subject, then overlapping textures building to a slow, but certain crescendo. Contrasts in texture and ambience prevail through the work’s four movements, the mood becoming almost Russian in the Scherzo, then Finale with its fugue reaching a ferocious climax.

The Orchestre Métropolitain is to be commended at many levels for its performance in Ottawa (all three works generated standing ovations). The ensemble is one of the top dozen or so of its kind currently performing in North America.

Charles Pope Jr.



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