St. Paul Chamber Orchestra ends it’s abbreviated season this weekend with Artistic Partner Edo de Waart leading a program that includes two Romantic masterpieces. Heard Thursday night at Ordway Center, de Waart’s reading of the Berlioz song cycle “Les Nuits d’été (Summer Nights)” was a performance for the ages.

Its title not withstanding, much of “Les Nuits d’été” is heart-rending, an example of how the Romantics found ecstasy in grief and longing. It begins and ends with two songs of joy.

This is a unique time in operatic history when star mezzos far outnumber star sopranos. In an elegant one-shoulder gown, Metropolitan Opera mezzo Isabel Leonard was every bit a diva.

She did not so much sing the songs as inhabit them. Her lyric mezzo moved easily from her plummy lower register to a soaring top, making thrilling moments out of Berlioz’s long melodic lines. She is a strong actor and, with impeccable French diction, she made each song a compelling story.

Berlioz showcased the singer, but under de Waart’s baton, the orchestral accompaniment was every bit as sensuous as she. His brisk tempos kept the histrionics from turning maudlin.

He also excelled with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, a work that contemporary critics found too modern and radical, especially after the pristine Classicism of Beethoven’s First. De Waart’s reading emphasized the transitional nature of the work, full Classical elegance and refinement, but bursting with Romantic exuberance and drama.

The winds and horns, in particular, sparkled. In the extreme moments, the string choir could sound a bit rough.

The program was filled out with two John Adams transcriptions of solo piano pieces: Franz Liszt’s “The Black Gondola” and Ferruccio Busoni’s “Berceuse élégiaque.” In Adams’ arrangement, Busoni’s lullaby did not sound especially elegiac. The modern tonalities made it into something menacing.

Liszt created an evocative tone poem, capturing the undulating canals of Venice in the strings and the funeral gondola in the horns and winds. Adams’ orchestration highlighted these images, and intensified the sense of tragedy. The orchestra gave it a true depth of feeling.

An ironic twist of history: Two months after Liszt completed the piece, his son-in-law, Richard Wagner, died in Venice and floated in one of the funeral gondolas. 

William Randall Beard writes regularly about music and theater.

Editor's note: Saturday's concert is being broadcast live on Minnesota Public Radio starting at 8 p.m.