The Cleveland Orchestra’s banner centennial season has come to a close, although music director Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra are hardly resting on their laurels: this weekend sees them present the complete Beethoven symphonies in Vienna, with the cycle to be repeated in Tokyo the following. Below I’ve listed my top ten picks from the season in roughly descending order, with links to my reviews on here and on Bachtrack.
- Tristan und Isolde – This was hands-down the 100th season highlight. The Cleveland Orchestra’s first complete traversal of this epochal opera since 1933, this performance for the ages featured top-drawer orchestral playing from what sounded like a seasoned operatic ensemble, and a stunning Nina Stemme as the preeminent Isolde.
- The Cunning Little Vixen – Speaking of opera, the season opened with a revival of Yuval Sharon’s groundbreaking production of The Cunning Little Vixen. A stellar cast was augmented by the ingenious use of digitally projected animations.
- Welser-Möst and Mahler 9 – FWM opened 2018 with a valedictory performance of Mahler’s autumnal Ninth Symphony, thoughtfully paired with a recent work of former composer-in-residence Johannes Maria Staud. Welser-Möst previously turned attention to Mahler early on in the season with a gripping reading of the Sixth.
- All Ravel with Pintscher and Thibaudet – The glittering splendor of Ravel’s orchestral writing was on full display in an evening surveying his major works, including the complete Daphnis et Chloé (with choir), and the Left Hand Piano Concerto with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, one of the work’s greatest champions (after which the pianist indulged in a gorgeous encore of the Pavane pour une infante défunte).
- MTT and Trifonov – Not having conducted TCO since 2006, Michael Tilson Thomas made a welcome return in an enticing Russian program, highlighted by pianist Daniil Trifonov’s powerhouse Prokofiev.
- Welser-Möst’s Beethoven symphony cycle – Under the moniker of The Prometheus Project, the season concluded with the nine Beethoven symphonies and a selection of the composer’s overtures. The highlights were many, but I was particularly taken by the energetic workout the orchestra gave to the Eroica. The Ninth certainly didn’t disappoint either, a magnificent summation of the cycle.
- Ashkenazy and Ax – Another favorite guest conductor who visits Severance Hall all too infrequently is Vladimir Ashkenazy. He returned in November to conduct Elgar’s Enigma Variations and a Beethoven piano concerto with Emanuel Ax.
- Turangalîla – As remarked upon by the New York Times, it isn’t often one gets to hear the Turangalîla right on the heels of Tristan, but such seems to be par for the course here in Cleveland. Just two months after his Ravel performance, Thibaudet came back in steely-fingered pianistic brilliance.
- Mozart with Hamelin and McGegan – Early music specialist Nicholas McGegan led the orchestra in pearly performances of a Mozart symphony and piano concerto, the latter in tandem with the incomparable Marc-André Hamelin (who regrettably does not have a Cleveland appearance scheduled for next season). Less-trodden suites by Rameau and Gluck rounded off the program.
- Stravinsky and Beethoven – Keen to include as many seminal works as possible during the centennial season, Welser-Möst conducted a bracing Rite of Spring, prefaced by his own transcription for string orchestra of one of Beethoven’s late quartets – a prelude of sorts to The Prometheus Project.
Despite the rich offerings from The Cleveland Orchestra, the classical music event of the season was surely Martha Argerich’s much-belated Cleveland debut. This took the shape of a duo recital with Sergei Babayan, and the bulk of the program was dedicated to the latter’s jaw-dropping Prokofiev transcriptions. For those wishing to relive that remarkable evening, the duo recorded the Prokofiev shortly thereafter (the Mozart having already been recorded at the 2016 Lugano Festival).
At the Cleveland Chamber Music Society, the Tetzlaff Quartett gave a memorable performance of Schubert’s expansive String Quartet No. 15 along with works of Berg and Mozart and the heart-wrenching Cavatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130 by way of an encore. The Han/Setzer/Finckel Trio presented all six Beethoven piano trios over the course of two nights, concluding with a fittingly majestic Archduke.
This was quite a year for opera in Cleveland, with Apollo’s Fire looking back to the genre’s genesis in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, a semi-staged production featuring Karim Sulayman in the title role.
For piano enthusiasts, the Tri-C Presents Classical Piano Series is essential; most notable this season was Lise de la Salle’s local debut. Her engaging recital of Schumann and Prokofiev should surely earn her an invitation to Severance Hall.
And the save of the year goes to Franz Welser-Möst for The Seasons. Two of the three vocal soloists fell ill a matter of hours before the performance – what would be a catastrophe for most was seemingly no obstacle for Welser-Möst. Salvaging the music that could still be performed with the forces available, he filled in the gaps with informative and enjoyable commentary. By the Saturday performance, a full cast was assembled and a complete performance given.