Saint-Saëns, Mussorgsky, Dukas, Dvořák, Balakiriev, Ives
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
Kent Nagano, conductor
When you listen to an album entitled Danse Macabre, you expect something gloomy and sombre, but it is not the case with this recording of Kent Nagano and Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Of course, there are some moments when you feel anguish and apprehension, as in Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain and there is something morbid and unnatural in Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, but the album is more varied in its nuances.
Its inspiration has its roots in a vogue of the XIX century, when «with the continuing rise of secular European society and a philosophical move away from the Enlightenment, Occultism gained a foothold in the popular consciousness, less encumbered by the shroud of Christian taboo that had previously held sway. This tendency was apparent in the popularity of the Victorian gothic horror novel and the philosophical works of the French Occultist revival, as well as in the spread of eccentric neo-Gothic architecture across Europe and North America. Composers seized the opportunity to evoke elements of the macabre and supernatural through the expressive and narrative possibilities afforded by the newly developing genre of the symphonic tone poem» (quote from the booklet note by Marc Wieser).
This is the link of the six symphonic pieces that constitute the programme of Danse Macabre. They are all renowned works (who do not remember L’apprenti sorcier or Night on the Bare Mountain, at least for their inclusion in the Disney movie Fantasia?) and for this reason conductor Kent Nagano’s skill to make them sound as new and subsequently to depict many great and vigorous pictures must not be underestimated. His firm and secure interpretation adds an unmistakable mark to this performance, which was recorded during a concert in 2015 at the Maison symphonique de Montréal, which was inaugurated in September 2011.
Paul Dukas’s L’apprenti soucier is enchanting and there is no better attribute than this to describe a work that is conducted with quickness and precision, so that its colours are masterfully highlighted, and with a hint of boldness that gives it the final touch. The next work, Antonìn Dvořák’s The Noonday Witch (or Polednice in the original Czech) exasperates the tragic spirit of the original story, but has also some delicate and nice moments, as at the beginning, with its fairy tale setting.
The work that gives the title to the album, Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, has a completely different spirit and Nagano stresses with uncompromising determination the general frenzy of the skeletons and of the dead, actually with a little detriment for the supernatural side of the work. The magical element appears in other works, as Mily Balakiriev’s Tamara, where it is as if another world suddenly opens in front of you.
Night on the Bare Mountain summarizes all the features displayed in the other works and for this reason I consider it the most interesting work of the album and a masterpiece for the way in which Nagano stresses its nervous beginning, the strength of the immediately next part and the quiet, even dreamy, conclusion. As for Charles Ives’s Halloween, the last composition of the album, it is a hallucinated parting and does very little to reassure the listener who is going back to his/her everyday life. I think that the choice of this last piece is extremely effective because a quieter, reconcilable conclusion would spoil the atmosphere of Dance macabre.