Kent Nagano led the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in a diverting program, opening with a piece by native composer Samy Moussa, known mostly for his operas. A Globe Itself Infolding (2014), commissioned by Pierre Boulez for the Lucerne Festival, is for organ and orchestra and derives its title from William Blake’s epic poem Milton, paraphrasing words from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel (“a fire itself infolding”). The organ serves as part of the musical fabric that generates waves of sound, like hills and valleys, evolving in harmonic progressions imbued with assorted orchestral colors. It opens with eerie tones, then layers of wind chords and organ figurations blend into a celestial ambiance, the organ hardly noticeable except for occasional penetrations. Woodwinds dart in intrusively and then violins predominate as the music ebbs and flows, harmonies shifting without virtually any linearity or rhythmic pulse. Nagano led a well-conceived performance, allowing the score to wend its way naturally through its emergent and regressing course.
The Bartók began somewhat hesitantly, and although the musicians gradually became more comfortable, the first movement was too careful. Nagano invigorated the more-rapid sections with a modicum of energy, but without generating much sense of vitality, and a brisk if rather dry second movement was also too controlled. The elegiac third movement began from the depths and soon took on an impressionistic hue reinforced with shimmering and gurgling strings. The violins’ lyrical theme was rich and spacious and the concluding flute solo glowed with ethereal beauty. Nagano instilled the fourth movement’s folk-like opening subject with a plaintive character, contrasting markedly with Bartók’s humorous interruption. Most effective was the Finale, bubbling over with verve and raucous razzle-dazzle, the brass taut and resilient.
Maxim Vengerov was initially a little out of sorts for Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Despite flawless technique and sublime lyrical passages he lacked spirit and involvement until the midpoint of the first movement. His lengthy cadenza (based on Joachim’s) was impressive, however, and in the closing section he showed off his extraordinary talents splendidly. Theodore Baskin’s lovely oboe solo provided a fine start to the Adagio, but again Vengerov was rather introverted, if refined and elegant, and the Finale was too restrained if brilliant at times, although somewhat slapdash, and when he tried to generate some fire and intensity all that came through was a glittering spark. As an encore, Vengerov gave a gorgeous rendition of the ‘Méditation’ from Massenet’s Thaïs, joined by soft harmonies and some doublings in the strings.