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Concert Review/ Kent Nagano & Susan Graham & Montréal Symphony Orchestra

img  Tobias Fischer

Kent Nagano, Conductor
Susan Graham, Mezzo-Soprano
Montréal Symphony Orchestra


Berg: Seven Early Songs
Mahler: Symphony No.9

     Marking the close to an illustrious 2009-2010 season, Kent Nagano and the Montréal Symphony Orchestra appropriately selected the epic Symphony No.9 of Gustav Mahler as the final season closer. As a complement, the programme originally featured Richard Strauss’s very own Four Last Songs. Unfortunately, as a result of laryngitis, soloist Karita Mattila had to cancel her much-awaited appearance. The American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was called to replace Mme. Mattila under extreme short notice, but delivered no less a triumphant rendition of Alban Berg’s rarely-heard Seven Early Songs. 

     Written by Berg from the years of 1905-1908, these are a selection of lieder set against vivid poetic settings of nature (“Night”; “Summer Days”), fantasy (“A crown of Dreams”; “The Nightingale”) and a plethora of rich human expressions (“Lovers’ Ode”; “Song amongst the reeds”; “Indoors”). Similar to his Opus 1 (Piano Sonata), Berg wrote these pieces during a period when the composer was witnessing a bloom in the experimentation of his musical writings. These songs exemplified a cross-talk of influences – there were those artistic disciplines and formidable technique he adopted from his teacher Arnold Schöenberg, but Berg also inherited and expanded on the rich traditions of Gustav Mahler, Robert Schumann, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, as well as influences of his French contemporary, Claude Debussy. With a prolific vocal repertory herself, Susan Graham was the ideal candidate to display the equally wide-ranging romantic sentiments of love and nature, and the technical colors represented in this set of seven songs. Already clear in these songs are those musical qualities that will make Wozzeck and Lulu moving experiences. Ms. Graham’s articulation was one that emphasized on a projection in clarity; for the audience that sat afar from the stage, her voice carried through the Salle Wilfried-Pelletier with definition and buoyancy that would otherwise have been disguised as an art in simplicity up close. The personal favorite of this author was the fantastical, night-inspired A Crown of Dreams (“Traumgekrönt”), in which the original text by Rainer Maria Rilke describes how a source of energy enters into the frightened mind of the main character as a guiding light. Ms. Graham gave richness of the texture and sensitivity to the text, while Nagano and his musicians were gratefully responsive to the voice by creating a nocturnal atmosphere that offered side comments of complementary status to those of the singer.

    Mahler’s Ninth represents a duality of life and death. As the program notes outlines, it is a work that includes “two shorter movements of irony, violence and bitterness, framed by mournfulness and exaltation in the two large slow movements, which is a kind of spiritual pilgrimage where the music illuminates the road to the last farewell.” In its entirety, this work encompasses great demands on the orchestra – from the subtle to the grandiose; from the sublime to the bombastic. Maestro Nagano and his Orchestra gave an overall satisfying account – no doubt benefitted from the sound balance and orchestral dialogues exchanged between members on stage. While the horns were situated at the rear left of the stage, the trombones and trumpets were contrasted by their masculine dominance on the far right. Moreover, the double basses were sat next to the horns; the percussions were at their back while in front of them were the set of woodwinds and strings. Also, contrary to the former Berg songs, concertmasters Richard Roberts and Andrew Wan exchanged roles, with the latter taking on an excellent role through the Ninth in his interspersed solo passages (most notably, in the Andante Commodo with passages exchanged with the winds). Hence, in this general configuration, the sound of the serene as well as the bombastic passages came out generally effective. Their accounts of the central two movements had a general transparency, like a musical pilgrimage in search of a light in the midst of darkness. The Ländler captured a sort of rustic boisterousness, whereas the waltz-scherzos and parodic Rondo-Burlesques were dark passages with demonic eruptions. Clearly, it was in the expansive outer movements of the Ninth where the meat of the emotion resides most abundantly. These movements were ever sweet and added a level of everlasting repose to the central movements. In the final Adagio, the Orchestra reached great heights and left this author lingered onto a lasting impression of beauty and calamity. Despite a slightly penetrating E Flat clarinet passage, the account of the final pages was deeply engaging. Maestro Nagano’s direction throughout the evening left the audience in admiration of the discipline and accomplished technical embellishments in this group of French musicians. 

     With Mahler’s Fourth, Das Lied and now the Ninth, Maestro Nagano and his Montréal Symphony Orchestra will embark on the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death. Together with past concert seasons that included the Second, Third (“Resurrection”), Seventh and the Eighth (“Symphony of a Thousand”), Maestro Nagano will conclude the cycle of Mahler symphonies in next season with the remaining First (“Titan”), Fifth and the Sixth symphonies. Be sure to stay tune on Tokafi for their future reviews.

By Patrick P.L. Lam

Picture by Dario Acosta

Homepage: Kent Nagano
Homepage: Susan Graham
Homepage: Montréal Symphony Orchestra

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