Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal - Salle Pleyel, Paris, 28 April 2009
The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal haven't visited France for a while, which might account for a less than packed-out Salle Pleyel. Indeed the Salle Pleyel were marketing this concert largely on the back of soloist Klaus Florian Vogt's knockout performance in last year's Lohengrin. But music director Kent Nagano's mission to raise the orchestra's international profile has resulted in a short European tour (the UK is off the list), of which this was the last but one date.
The result was taut and accomplished playing all round, ensemble sharpened by repeated performance. Details positively sparkled in the first two of Debussy's Nocturnes, Nuages and Fêtes.
Tan Dun's Orchestral Theatre 1:O followed. This 1990 composition is far more interesting than the tired oriental cliches he's been peddling recently. The O is for Origin, and the piece recreates a shamanic ritual symphonically with minimalist textures and odd sonorities evocative of traditional Chinese instruments. Col legno strings provide a rattling percussive backbone, and the orchestra sigh, shout and grunt en masse, an effect which provoked a few unsuppressable titters around me. Still, it was hypnotically fascinating, and very well-received.
The Chinese theme was picked up again in the second half with Das Lied von der Erde. The soloists were Christian Gerhaher and Klaus Florian Vogt, two singers I admire hugely, but very different from each other. Gerhaher is one of today's great lieder singers, with a rich colour palette and a fanatically detailed approach to text. Vogt on the other hand is pure sonority, a voice with the abstract qualities of a musical instrument. It was never clear quite what Nagano hoped to achieve from this odd marriage, apart from a clearly-delineated break between songs.
The Tan Dun piece proved a canny entrée, as Nagano's reflective reading underlined the novelty of Mahler's scoring. Carefully nuanced detail was laid out coolly and clearly - no red-blooded romanticism here. But Nagano wasn't afraid of unleashing the full power of the orchestra either, a little to the detriment of the first song, Das Trinklied, where a slightly tired-sounding Klaus Florian Vogt struggled to be heard. Neither this nor Der Trunkene im Frühling were ideally matched to his elevated qualities of luminous clarity and effortlessly exquisite tone. But his Von der Jugend was as near perfect as it gets.
A scarily intense Christian Gerhaher demonstrated the real reason this cycle is usually attemped by an alto rather than a baritone - it's simply too hard and too high. Gerhaher nailed every note perfectly, but it was touch and go, with the effort at the top particularly apparent. But this was another fine performance from him - always attentive to words, his immaculately-crafted phrasing was particularly telling in the lied-like Der Abschied.
It was overall an idiosyncratic reading that split the audience two ways - a minority of ostentatious coughers and fidgeters who dashed for the doors the minute Nagano's baton dropped, and a far greater number of enthusiasts whose applause brought conductor and soloists back to the stage at least six times - I lost count.