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Expect the unexpected on Kent Nagano: OSM recordings / Los Angeles Times

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Kent Nagano can be heard is on a series of outstanding recordings with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal over the last decade. These include a Beethoven symphony cycle, Mahler recordings with German baritone Christian Gerhaher ("Das Lied von der Erde" is a must) and Unsuk Chin's phenomenal Violin Concerto, all of which show the Montrealers to be in gorgeous shape.

The latest are two seemingly less significant releases on the Analekta label revolving around Saint-Saëns. Expect the unexpected. For one thing, there is Montreal's orchestral sound, which has acquired a burnished and near mystical warmth under Nagano. For another, there is Analekta's showcase recorded sound, the finest I've heard of an orchestra in some time. If you have the equipment to play hi-res digital files, you can find them (at remarkably reasonable prices) on the Analekta website.

Each release features a famous, and over-recorded, Saint-Saëns' Third - the Symphony No. 3 and Violin Concerto No. 3. But Nagano places each score in an unusual context. The symphony, which features organ, is surrounded by recent works for orchestra and organ by Samy Moussa and Kaija Saariaho that Nagano commissioned for the OSM. A 31-year-old composer from Montreal, Moussa is a dazzling colorist, and his "A Globe Itself Unfolding" glowingly immerses the organ in an ocean of orchestral sonorities. Saariaho's "Maan Varjot," which the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed in 2014, explores cooler and harsher but highly original organ/orchestra colors. The soloists are the orchestra's emeritus organist, Olivier Latry, and its resident one, Jean-Willy Kunz.

For a survey of Saint-Saëns' three violin concertos, Nagano relies on the OSM's suave young concertmaster, Andrew Wan. What is unexpected here is that the little-known first two concertos are worth the excavation for their melodic freshness and verve, while the third, a virtuoso showpiece, sounds just as fresh when played with reserve and class.

Sonically, Nagano's refinement stands in considerable contrast to the more brightly colored and detailed OSM sound that previous music director Charles Dutoit made famous in a series of spectacular Decca recordings produced in the early digital age. But Decca has now signed the orchestra again, and the first release with Nagano is a find: an obscure French opera, "L'Aiglon" (The Eaglet), jointly composed by Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert.  Decca's engineers expect the expected in their attempt to revive on record the crystalline OSM sparkle of old. That's not entirely inappropriate, given the quantity of sparkle that "L'Aiglon" supplies and the careful attention Nagano pays to telling details. But this orchestra no longer needs Dutoit's brilliance. Nagano has taken it to less obvious, more ethereal realms.

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