THE BACK PAGES

Beethoven and Dallaire, on one disk

The OSM’s new CD, its first with Kent Nagano, is a profoundly eccentric little artifact

PAUL WELLS June 9 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Beethoven and Dallaire, on one disk

The OSM’s new CD, its first with Kent Nagano, is a profoundly eccentric little artifact

PAUL WELLS June 9 2008

Beethoven and Dallaire, on one disk

music

The OSM’s new CD, its first with Kent Nagano, is a profoundly eccentric little artifact

PAUL WELLS

An excellent new CD from l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal used to be an almost routine occurrence. For two decades under Charles Dutoit, the OSM recorded more prolifically and with greater success than almost any other major orchestra. Tucked in a chilly northern city well removed from the cultural thoroughfares of Europe and New York, the OSM built its reputation on a seemingly endless succession of tiny silver platters. But so much has changed. The OSM’s new two-CD release, Beethoven: Ideals of the French Revolution, is the orchestra’s first under its new music director Kent Nagano, and it’s a profoundly eccentric little cultural artifact. The surreal economics of modern recording have a lot to do with it. So do Nagano’s own peculiarities. And finally there’s the record’s subject matter, which makes it in some ways the most Canadian thing the OSM has ever done.

It used to be so easy for the OSM. Dutoit, a Swiss import, had been running the band for less than three years when Decca Records executive Ray Minshull heard them in February 1980. Digital recording was a brand new technique, Decca lacked orchestras that could play French repertoire convincingly, and here was “a truly French-sounding ensemble, who were enthusiastic, disciplined and of the first quality,” Minshull has written. Dutoit and Decca signed a contract two days later. The OSM had done three record sessions by July. Sixty more would follow.

But that was then. The advent of compact disks sparked a recording boom the world will never see again. The entire classical repertoire had to be re-recorded using the new technology. The demographics were just right: millions of young professionals trying to figure out the controls on their new CD players were precisely the sort of people who’d want a shelf full of Dutoit leading his Montreal charges through Ravel, Fauré, Berlioz, Debussy, and the odd Russian or Slav like Prokofiev and Bartok. The OSM and dozens of other orchestras were just churning stuff out.

Today, iPods and online file sharing mean those digital recordings are liberated from CDs. Eighty years of back catalogue, a quarter-century of it digital, have become the mortal enemy of new recording. Dutoit left after a fight with the Montreal musicians’ union in 2002. Today the OSM has no longterm record contract, although the orchestra’s management is working on it.

In the meantime, there’s this new Beethoven thing. It’s on Analekta, a Quebec independent label with a fraction of Decca’s global reach. Sony/BMG is handling international distribution, but that means less than it used to because in any case the OSM itself, not the record labels, paid the recording costs. There’s no money in records any more for orchestras. CDs have become a loss leader for building a reputation—or, in Montreal’s case, for rebuilding one. And what kind of reputation will this new product build? Audacious and a little weird. The centrepiece is a work called The General. Commissioned by Nagano and assembled by the English music critic Paul Griffiths, it stitches together music Beethoven wrote for the Goethe play Egmontwith excerpts from Canadian general Roméo Dallaire’s diary of the 1993 Rwanda slaughter under the noses of UN observers.

This is such an odd jumble of ingredients that it does no good to think too hard about whether it makes sense. You kind of just have to go with it. Nagano can be like that. California-born, a champion of new music and the canonical German repertoire that Dutoit preferred to avoid, Nagano has worked hard to get to know Canada since he arrived at the OSM podium in 2006. Apparently whatever he studies comes out as music. This year there was a musical tribute to the Montreal Canadiens. Next season it’ll be a concerto for orchestra and talk-radio host, featuring RadioCanada veteran René Homier-Roy.

How well do Beethoven and Dallaire go together? You’d be surprised. The Egmont music is triumphant. Dallaire’s command was a nightmare of impotence. Together they make an oratorio of helplessness on an epic scale. “The radio station was chanting hate. ‘Hate the others,’ ” the Austrian actor Maximilian Schell intones. “I asked headquarters for permission to intervene. The answer came: ‘Do nothing.’ ” This release is such a self-conscious feat of orchestral management and Canadian myth-building that it feels almost anecdotal to report the OSM sounds superb, bold when needed but with a chamber-orchestra delicacy that recalls the Dutoit days.