Has it really been nine years since Kent Nagano took over the podium of the Montreal Symphony? Never mind the mop of waving hair or the animated conducting style, he is a musician par excellence, and has maintained the high standards set by his predecessor, Charles Dutoit. For their newest release, the orchestra has issued a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies, having presented them singly during the past six years. Six of them were recorded live between 2008 and 2014 and along with excerpts from Egmont and the Creatures of Prometheus, it’s a handsome collection on the Analekta label.
There are innumerable recordings of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, so what makes this one stand apart from the others? For one thing, it’s Nagano’s lack of sensationalism. Despite this conductor’s sometime exuberant persona, his interpretations are known for their intelligence and clarity, and this is nowhere more evident than in this collection. The Symphony No.1 is a case in point. From the first hesitant measures, the listener immediately senses that indeed, this is what Beethoven would have wanted. This groundbreaking work is presented in an energetic and articulated manner, the phrasing always carefully nuanced.
On the other hand, Symphony No.3 is suitably heroic, my only quibble being a slightly brisker tempo in the opening movement than I’m used to. When comparing this to the more measured interpretations by European conductors it may come across as too hurried. But this is a minor point, and the careful phrasing coupled with the exemplary performance by the brass and woodwinds more than makes up for it.
The much-beloved “Pastoral” is all gentleness, the strings demonstrating a particular warmth and resonance.
What more can be said about the great Symphony No.9? This particular performance was recorded for the inaugural concert in the new Maison Symphonique de Montréal in September, 2011 and features sopranos Adrienne Pieczonka and Erin Wall, mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Mikhail Petrenko along with the OSM Chorus and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. While the approach is noble and confident, to my ears, it doesn’t break any new ground in interpretation – but this is not necessarily a bad thing, and the soloists all deliver solid performances.
But how do they handle my favourite symphony, the glorious No.7 written in 1812? Not surprisingly, Nagano and the OSM live up to expectations. The performance is magnificent – energetic and robust – at all times displaying a wonderful cohesion of sound particularly evident in the joyful finale.
Bravo to Maestro Nagano and the musicians of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. You have proven that there is indeed room for yet another set of the complete Beethoven symphonies – and the rousing applause at the conclusion of the live performances is a clear indication that others felt the same.