Bach in Montreal

2008-03-27 / Montréal Gazette / Arthur Kaptainis

Nagano makes point – and counterpoint – with MSO

Does Kent Nagano sell offbeat programming or does offbeat programming sell Kent Nagano? Both theories seemed valid this week in Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, where the Montreal Symphony Orchestra twice presented a counterpoint theme” evening anchored by Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5.

This score is seldom heard, owing to its length (80 minutes last night), difficulty (the finale is a far-flung exercise in fugato) and episodic personality (the first movement seems to start at least three times). Many conductors and orchestras would rather leave it be.

Nagano and the MSO have a different attitude, and in technical and sonic particulars their success was prodigious. Entries were mostly spot-on, solos were things of beauty, chorales were balanced to perfection and – most remarkably – the strings created a deep-woods, Central-European, echt-Brucknerian sound.

All of which is not quite to say this was ideal Fifth. Like most conductors, Nagano took the main Allegro section of the first movement at a moderate pace, to maximize its majesty, a strategy that also minimizes its momentum. And as fine as the slow movement was, the last pang of heartache evaded me.

Back to the weird programming. The opening of the concert alternated solo-piano selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier as delivered by no less a Bach celebrity than Angela Hewitt with Canzoni by Gabrieli as performed by the MSO brass players. These latter (who had a few things to do also in Bruckner) stood antiphonally between the piano. Gabrieli is really more about sonority than counterpoint, but the pieces stood in pleasing contrast with Hewitt’s warmly expressive solos.

Apart from affirming the value of Bach on the modern Steinway, the London-based Canadian also reminded us that a solo piano can project handsomely in the big hall of Place des Arts. Impresarios take note.”