Richard Strauss & Mahler from Montréal

A fabulous coupling delivered in performances of consummate power

Richard Strauss & Mahler from Montréal

It was my pleasure to travel to Montréal not so long ago to meet Rafael Payare and to hear the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) on their home turf: I reported on concerts here and here, and my article appeared in the magazine Classical Music. Here are the most recent fruits of the OSM/Payaré combination: an orchestral spectacular and some Mahler songs with Sonya Yoncheva, deservedly a soprano du jour. The recording quality is top-notch.

First, that Richard Strauss. Ein Heldenleben is famously a portrait of the composer's life, with the horns as hero and the solo violin as Richard's wife, Pauline (here, played by the OSM's leader, Andrew Wan). Here's the swashbuckling opening, caught in a superb recording at the orchestra's home (Maison symphonique de Montréal):

The exchanges between the solo violin and (quiet) orchestra are some of the finest I have heard:

The string detail, Payare’s awareness of Strauss' polyphony and his ability to create a core Straussian richness while losing none of the transparency mark this out as one of the most beautiful, compelling Heldenlebens around; “Des Heldens Glück” is stunning in this regard..

But there is another side to this piece: the famous Battle Scene (The Hero at Battle). Perhaps not quite as visceral as my reference recording (Haitink on Philips with the Concertgebouw Orchestra), Payare's laser-like clarity and the sheer heft of his orchestra are nevertheless impressive. Listen to the violins' virtuosity, the accuracy of the brass, the way the recording handles the Montréal orchestra at full tilt:

Principal horn Catherine Turner is an expressive, sensitive player, and her solos in dialogue with the solo violin in the final “Des Helden Vollending” are simply stunning. Her control over her instrument is total, and her feeling for phrasing divine:

Just for the Heldenleben, this disc is worth every penny. But there's more ...

Rafael Payare conducting teh OSM, photo © Antoine Saito

Talking about this disc, Payere has said:

It has been a fascinating experience to explore this repertoire with the OSM. Reconnecting with Mahler while immersing ourselves in the sound world of Strauss marks an important milestone in our musical trajectory together and continues our shared journey through the German and Austrian repertoire. It is also our first collaboration with Sonya Yoncheva, whose extraordinary voice is blessed with an endless palette of expressive nuances and colours. We are very pleased to share with you the poetic and musical world of these two towering composers.

.. and here is that Mahler, the Rückert-Lieder. Strauss' Heldenleben was written in 1899; Mahler's songs date from just two years later. Mahler's sound universe is very different, of course, and Payare has the OSM shift accordingly. Sonya Yonheva is in some of the best form I have ever heard her. Here is the utter desolation of “Um Mitternacht,” the third song:

The heart-stopping final “Ich bin Der Welt abandon gekommen” unravels with consummate, heart-wrenching beauty:

Sonya Yoncheva, photo © Sasha-Onyshchenko

A fabulous coupling delivered in performances of consummate power.

This wonderful disc is available via Amazon here; Spotify below. Photos © Antoine Saito apart from Yoncheva's black & white portrait (© Sasha-Onyshchenko).