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Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

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Honegger / Ibert, L'Aiglon, A.-C. Gillet, M. Barrard, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, K. Nagano
(Decca, 2016)
The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal embarked on a North American tour with a concert on Monday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presented by Washington Performing Arts. American-born conductor Kent Nagano, most familiar in these pages for his tenure in Munich and for his recordings, has led this Canadian ensemble since 2006 and just had his contract extended until 2020. In general, the group sounded best in its string sections, which were capable of diaphanous transparency and rhythmic incisiveness, with unrestrained, occasionally overbearing brass and woodwinds that had striking individuality, which is not to say ugliness. It was not a sound or a performance that earned extravagant praise, at least to these ears, although its reading of the final work on the concert, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, was full of unexpected surprises, which is not exactly easy to accomplish with such a familiar piece of music.

In the Stravinsky, those raucous woodwinds filled the score with wild colors, pushing their sound to the edge of what could still be called beautiful, right from the opening bassoon solo, where a tenuto clinging to the top notes of the melody filled the moment with sweet nostalgia. Nagano took his time with parts of the score, like the famous "Augurs of Spring," that too many other conductors drive past in an obsession with speed that does not necessarily take into account the movement of dancers. In many places, Nagano's shepherding of balances brought out parts of this dense score that had gone unnoticed in previous performances. The soft parts never bored, seemingly guided by an awareness of the story and what the dancers were depicting, allowing plenty of time for the old sage to be lowered to the ground to kiss the earth, for example. When the score was at its most manic, though, as in the manic Dance of the Earth and the Sacrificial Dance that conclude both parts of the ballet, Nagano and his musicians created a thrilling frenzy.

Other Reviews:

Lawrence A. Johnson, Montreal Symphony makes a triumphant return to Chicago (Chicago Classical Review, March 19)

Anthony Tommasini, Montreal Symphony Orchestra Performs With Panache (New York Times, March 17)

Anne Midgette, Brilliant pianist leads orchestra’s return (Washington Post, March 15)

David Rohde, Montreal Symphony Orchestra with Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, March 15)
Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov always makes unexpected choices when he sits down at the keyboard. No surprise, then, that his rendition of the solo part of Prokofiev's punishing third piano concerto, last heard from Nikolai Lugansky, was strong on devilish virtuosity. He thundered and shrieked his way through the thickets of notes, delighting in the odd duets with the piccolo and castanets, although Nagano allowed the orchestra to cover the soloist too much in sound. Far too much work had gone into Trifonov's part for long sections of it not to be heard. Trifonov's sometimes odd approach made the slow movement enigmatic, at times baffling, followed by a ferocious finale, which Trifonov pushed faster and faster, to dazzling effect. He returned to one of his favorite encores, Rachmaninoff's inspired arrangement of a Bach gavotte, which he also played at his 2013 recital.

The only part of the concert that disappointed was a lackluster performance of Debussy's Jeux, a piece where one definitely missed the velvet touch of Charles Dutoit at the helm. The often overlooked twin of Rite of Spring, which was premiered by the Ballets Russes in the same year, it is a revolutionary piece that can be difficult to bring off the page, because it is so subtle in its subversion of traditional harmony. This was a performance that seemed neither rarefied nor singular, during which not much seemed to happen and so many distinctive colors passed by unnoticed. By the end, no matter what happens, the corpse of tonality lies dead on the floor, felled by countless artistically placed cuts.

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