Payare, Montreal Symphony deliver magnificent Mahler

Thu Mar 09, 2023 at 2:07 pm
Rafael Payare conducted the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Antoine Saito

Only a few days have passed since the Vienna Philharmonic’s extraordinary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. On Wednesday night the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and conductor Rafael Payare arrived in Carnegie Hall, with pianist Yefim Bronfman and music by Dorothy Chiang, Bartók, and Mahler. This wasn’t so much lightning-strikes-twice as another great orchestra visiting New York City and delivering some of the most marvelous performances in memory.

Chiang’s Precipice opened the night in its New York premiere. The delicate, quiet atmosphere of its beginning, with its astringent dissonances showed one musically impressive aspect of the orchestra, how well such a large ensemble could play music that is low in dynamics and which demands focused intonation for its effects. This was a fine opener for the OSM, showing off colors and subtle playing, illuminating Chiang’s skillful orchestration.

One also hears a romantic, narrative sensibility, but one that again expresses simple, acceptable statements but shrinks away from chance-taking. The goal of Precipice is to express feelings of instability about the current state of the world, but Chiang’s means are stable structures and a predictable form, which only works if one hears the specific narrative. That relies on an iffy personal connection between composer and listener, perhaps a reason why so much new music sounds fine but is hard to remember, as was Precipice. A piece about how music works in time, as Stravinsky pointed out, could use harmony and rhythm to create more universal sensations of instability, allowing the listener to fill in their own thoughts and experiences. Few composers these days seem to listen to Stravinsky.

They may give more attention to Bartók and Mahler, two geniuses of course, but whose concepts and means of working with instability were unique. Wednesday night, the OSM played two of their masterpieces, with Bronfman soloing in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and the orchestra, after intermission, playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

These were both astounding performances, the kind where one is swept up by the music, leaving any previous experience of the music aside for the thrilling, spontaneous feeling of what was happening in the moment. Bronfman may not be as prominent in the public consciousness today as Daniil Trifonov, Yuja Wang, or Igor Levit, but he is one of the finest living pianists, and his playing in the concerto was incredible.

Yefim Bronfman performed Bartók’s Piano Concero No. 2 Wednesday night. Photo: Antoine Saito

Bartók’s writing is tremendously demanding without being extravagant or showy. There is a lot of very fast but very quiet music, the intensity building through focus rather than demonstration. Bronfman played this all with a beautiful touch, smooth legato phrases and also exacting rhythms and articulation. The piano part is deeply integrated with the orchestra and sets up a subtle and thrilling feeling of instability by running precipitously through what the orchestra is playing, from the opening fanfare through the singular middle movement and to the end. Bronfman insinuated his way through, like water carving stone.

Orchestral details were a little murky in the opening movement, although that may have had something to do with Bronfman’s grip on one’s attention. The string timbre and intonation in the quiet opening of the second movement was gorgeous while also keeping that Bartókian emotional distance. Bronfman’s playing here was breathtaking, seeming to beckon, then hide behind corners, drawing in the listener. Even the energy and power of the final movement had the gliding quality of the previous movements, alluring in the fundamental sense, always just ahead, promising both danger and satisfaction.

Playing like this demanded an encore, and Bronfman played Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 9. Again, the touch was beautiful, and his expression was clear, simple, letting the listener choose the weight to add to the music.

Payare is in his first season as music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and the collaborative feeling between conductor and orchestra in the Mahler symphony was that of a seasoned relationship. Payare is a dynamic presence on the podium, physically active and attentive to detail, at times even vocalizing loudly, in a manner that can be too much too soon. But in this performance, it seemd exactly right.

Symphony No. 5 is one of the greatest, and most unstable, works in the repertoire. The music is constantly building, falling apart, then rebuilding in sequences that not only are often rapid but are overlapping and happening simultaneously. This starts with a mournful trumpet fanfare, an oxymoron that is emblematic of Mahler’s psychological complexity, and then spins out at various levels of control from there.

This was, first and last, a superlative Mahler performance with the type of energy and spirit that caresses and screams with the same commitment, and moves easily between the two qualities. Beyond that, this was playing at the edge of control, something Mahler often demands and no more so than in this work.

Beyond Payare’s in-the-moment direction, his preparation came through in the excellent pace, dynamics, and balances within and through the orchestra. There are so many opportunities to pick and choose details to highlight, and the playing shone a spotlight on the wonderful wind colors in this orchestra, especially the unusually nasal double-reeds and a dark trumpet sound. The articulation of details in the strings, things like quick 16th-note rests toward the end of phrases and moments of portamento, were superb.

The tempest in the “Stúrmisch” second section melted away into a rich, dark interpretation of the cello line, no solace but only devastation. The extremes of light and dark with and across the forms were heightened. The first two sections alternately emotionally wrenching and fulfilling. 

In the Scherzo, Payare had horn soloist Catherine Turner stand, and her playing was brilliant and unerring, and even more impressive was the perfect blend as she passed off her sustained, decaying notes to her seated stand-mate. The Adagietto was slow in the contemporary manner, almost nine minutes, but the internal pace and tempo modulations made it flow forward, leading directly into the finale. 

Like Bronfman’s gliding playing, the idea here was the excitement and joy of moving forward. The grand finale was not a place to pause, it was large but Payare decided not to linger there, nor even show that as a culminated point. Instead, he and the orchestra bounded through the final measures, pointing to the real final destination. It was a choice one had not heard before, and it was indisputably right.

4 Responses to “Payare, Montreal Symphony deliver magnificent Mahler”

  1. Posted Mar 10, 2023 at 9:25 am by Plum

    W.O.W…..your writing is superb…so illuminating it is as if I was there….Thank you!

  2. Posted Mar 10, 2023 at 4:38 pm by David Roseman

    Thank you for a superb review of this concert which I heard delivered at Montreal’s Symphony Hall (Maison symphonique) last night. You summed up the experience perfectly.

  3. Posted Mar 10, 2023 at 5:05 pm by Graham wright

    We heard the same concert in Montreal on Thursday night and it was outstanding.we are so lucky in Montreal. Your comments were dead on.. Now we await Mahler 3 in May.

  4. Posted Mar 11, 2023 at 5:33 am by Richard Springer

    Excellent, eloquent review..Thank you.

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