Playing Beethoven the good old modern way in Montréal’s audiophile Maison symphonique

CanadaCanada Mozart, Beethoven: James Ehnes (violin), Orchestre symphonique de Montréal / Bernard Labadie (conductor). 22.9.2020 performance from Montréal’s Maison symphonique, reviewed when streamed live on the OSM website. (LV)

James Ehnes

Mozart – Symphony No.35 in D major K.385 ‘Haffner’

Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major Op.61

From the timpanist’s bold roll into the first bars of the Haffner, Bernard Labadie led a performance that emphasized the music’s theatrical brilliance and drama. He actively encouraged the Andante to be coy and charming, allowing the orchestra’s exquisite woodwinds to flirt with Watteau-like colors and lovely, languorous sighs. The trills in the violin were impeccably synched, while the strings gently cushioned the occasional rambunctious accents Labadie required.

The Minuet and Trio were more court than courtly, lacking in charm, but Mozart recovered his élan for a Presto that was almost breakneck, horns, drums and trumpets leading the way, and which mostly resisted the usual efforts of the coy interludes to linger. The string section flaunted their torrents of eighth notes with relentless unanimity and driving force, and the four double basses proved that the last movement of the Haffner is an orchestral audition for their instrument all in itself.

Labadie took a similarly lean approach to the opening of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with more sweet playing from the woodwinds, doubled now. Then, as the violins sang the great broad theme leading to the first entrance of the soloist with consoling richness, James Ehnes used his unbroken line through string and register shifts to lay out and transform the movement’s basic territory in spare, violinistic terms before intensifying in the exposition. Ehnes rocked hypnotically into a staggering display of the final double-stopped triplets of the Kreisler cadenza before returning to the theme, which he played as if his soul were exhausted, slowly and movingly, before rousing himself defiantly and gloriously at the end.

More beauty abounded in the Larghetto, where the horns sounded out with the poetry of majesty, where a lone clarinet and bassoon in turn sang their mournful song perfectly in tune. Ehnes allowed himself to be more affected by the music, more reflective; the little game he played with the pizzicato strings was intricate and almost too intimate. After some reluctance to let the music go and take up with the short cadenza, he grew more enthusiastic and added at least ten seconds of flourishes he composed himself, leading to an urgent, almost impetuous Allegro, with the timpani again rumbling along for rambunctious good measure, emphasizing the powerful nature of the movement and the piece, without ever losing its good manners.

Pivoting with a slurred double-stop of unimaginable beauty, all the more effective because the evening had largely been free of portamento, Ehnes ascended the cadenza before returning to pipings of the tune suggesting Harold in Italy yet to come, and a literate reading of the final heroic filigrees. And more timpani because, as always with Ehnes, the orchestra and conductor wind up becoming complicit in his pursuit of what’s going on in the score and parts, and their collaborative notions of what’s going on in Beethoven’s heart.

The 42 socially distanced players of the OSM filled the audiophile hall with dynamic, full sound. The camera angles, which were kept to a minimum, discrete, interested in the musicians they were watching, added to the cumulative impact.

Laurence Vittes

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