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Magnificent Mahler in Montreal

Maison symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts
03/09/2023 -  & March 6 (Washington), 8 (New York), 2023
Dorothy Chang: Precipice
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, BB 101
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C‑sharp minor

Yefim Bronfman (Piano)
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Rafael Payare (Conductor)

(© Antoine Saito)

The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) brought Mahler’s Fifth to a sold‑out Maison symphonique Thursday evening, following a short American tour to Washington’s Kennedy Center and New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The Orchestra also released this month their recording of the work on the Pentatone label, as the first offering of their Mahler cycle. This is album 132 for the OSM!

And what a magnificent performance it was—finely-calibrated dynamics, pulsating rhythms, myriad colors, heartfelt solos—this account left nothing to be desired. (The OSM opened this season with Mahler’s Second and are scheduled to close it with the Third.) In the first movement, solo trumpet Paul Merkelo was superb in the opening and the agonized duet with the violins, playing with restrained power and grace. (The first and second violins were placed on opposite sides of the stage to better bring out their contrasting roles, particularly in the final movement.) Solo cello Brian Manker and his forces shone in the second movement as did the combined strings in the triumphant chorale in D major. The highlight of the symphony’s Scherzo was the glorious solo turns from the Orchestra’s principal horn, Catherine Turner, who stood for the duration. Interestingly, five of the six horn players were women. (Less interesting were the red laces in Mr Payare’s black patent leather shoes! Colored socks are out? Prime Minster Trudeau take note!)

The Adagietto was lovingly sculpted but not sentimentally drawn out. Often mistakenly referred to as a “funereal dirge”, Mahler wrote this heartbreaking movement as a love song to his wife Alma. The return of the main theme given to the second violins allowed them a rare turn in the spotlight. The power released in the final movement was cataclysmic and the blazing conclusion brought down the house. The thunderous and heartfelt reception given to the Orchestra and Maestro Payare was truly merited.

I’ve noted the skimpiness of some OSM programing in recent years, but this evening’s offering was overly generous, and high-octane to boot! Preceding the Mahler, Yefim Bronfman performed with the orchestra Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto with a seasoned and masterful touch. It’s almost 30 years since he recorded the treacherously difficult work with Esa‑Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His performance was just as fresh and vital as a quarter century ago, if not more so. Bronfman played with a fluid line in the softer passages and passionate force in the spectacular first movement cadenza and finale. And if that were not enough, Bronfman then encored Chopin’s Nocturne in E‑flat Op. 9 No. 2 with haunting delicacy and panache.

The evening began with the last OSM commission to the Canadian composer Dorothy Chang—Precipice (2019). The 10‑minute work for large orchestra opens with an ominous sense of doom imbued with tension and malice. This leads to a cataclysmic ruckus apparently meant to show (according to the program notes) the precarious condition of our world, with Covid‑19 thrown in for extra measure. The performance was enjoyable enough, but hardly distinguishable in one’s memory from the plethora of other short contemporary pieces composed for overtures in recent decades.

Earl Arthur Love



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