December 03, 2009


Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99 (2 CDs).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99 (SACD).

     Bruckner did not seriously start composing symphonies until he was in his 40s (although the “study symphony” sometimes called No. 00 dates to 1863, when he was 39). His works, especially the later ones, are long, heavy and can be ponderous; they are also uniquely structured with thematic groups, developed in forms that differ significantly from those of other symphonies of Bruckner’s time, and filled with pauses that Bruckner likely heard as changes of the “registration” of the orchestra – akin to the pauses that are inevitable when playing the organ, an instrument on which Bruckner had considerable skill. For all these reasons and others, Bruckner’s symphonies have long been thought of as the province of mature conductors, who have lived with and through music long enough to fit Bruckner into an overall context while still exploring the unique elements of his symphonic style. It is therefore a shock, and a mighty pleasant one, to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s versions of Bruckner’s last three symphonies – because here is a young conductor (born in 1975) who refuses to believe there is any reason not to conduct Bruckner with intensity, youthfulness and even a certain impulsiveness.

     The results are highly impressive. For one thing, Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal is not a traditional 100-piece (that is, Bruckner-size) orchestra: it has only about 60 players, the exact number depending on each work’s individual requirements. Thus, this orchestra brings a level of clarity to Bruckner – an audibility of inner voices and of individual sections within what is usually a grand swell of sound – that is both unusual and revelatory. The brass section occasionally falls a bit short of the fullness needed for truly effective Bruckner, but everyone in the orchestra plays gamely throughout. Nézet-Séguin has been the orchestra’s music director since 2000 and clearly knows just how much he can demand of the players – and they deliver for him with such enthusiasm that the comparative thinness in some of the grand climaxes is more than compensated for in softer sections that bring forth Bruckner’s considerable but rarely emphasized debt to Schubert. Nézet-Séguin’s Bruckner flows, not through excessive tempos – his are generally middle-of-the-road for this music – but through a focused rhythmic quality that keeps individual sections moving along smartly until Bruckner purposely stops, inserts one of his famous full-orchestra rests, and resumes in a different mood.

     The ATMA releases are, to be sure, a bit puzzling. Nos. 7 and 9 are single discs, both released in SACD format. No. 8, the most recent performance, is a two-CD (not SACD) set – the second CD containing the finale of No. 8 plus a “bonus” of the slow movement of No. 7 from the earlier recording. Also, No. 7 is a live recording; the other two symphonies were recorded in the studio. Actually, considering how different the provenance of these discs is, there is a remarkable consistency to their sound, to the sound of the orchestra and to Nézet-Séguin’s interpretations – testimony to this conductor having genuinely thought about Bruckner’s music before mounting the podium to lead it.

     Since these performances are most effective when taken as a whole, it is unfair to single out particular elements for their quality. No. 7, in particular, comes through as a fully unified work that gives no sense of meandering but moves inexorably from movement to movement. In No. 8, it is worth highlighting Nézet-Séguin’s way with the very difficult Adagio, a 30-minute movement that can easily become soporific if the conductor does not pay attention to its underlying structure and keep it moving ahead even when its pace is glacial. Nézet-Séguin’s careful attention to details of orchestration pays particular rewards here. In No. 9, the pizzicati of the Scherzo are unusually clear (although there are some unnecessary accelerandos), and the extended Adagio – another 30-minute movement – climbs episodically but fervently from one height to the next, so that it is genuinely dismaying when it ends questioningly, as if to prepare for the finale that Bruckner never finished. In all, these three performances show Nézet-Séguin to be a conductor to reckon with: he has thoroughly considered Buckner’s music and its meaning; and he brings to it a maturity that, clichéd though the phrase may be, is beyond his years. A complete Bruckner cycle from Nézet-Séguin would likely be a most interesting one, especially since the earlier symphonies are even more strongly Schubertian than the last three and would give Nézet-Séguin additional opportunities to bring out Bruckner’s considerable lyrical flow. Already, Nézet-Séguin has established himself as a Brucknerian to watch – and to hear with pleasure.

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