Pintscher and Gerstein join Cleveland Orchestra in big-boned Rachmaninov, Bartók

Cleveland Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 1, 2018

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
 Encore:
 Chopin: Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42
Bartók: The Wooden Prince, Op. 13, Sz. 60

A return appearance from former Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow Matthias Pintscher is always a welcome sight at Severance Hall. Pintscher’s program was comprised of two large-scale works, both from Eastern Europe, and both from the first decades of the 20th-century. Rachmaninov’s enduring Third Piano Concerto made for a meaty first half with Gilmore Artist Award winner Kirill Gerstein at the keyboard. The opening melody was haunting in its monastic simplicity, and never sentimentalized. Gerstein took matters at a fairly brisk tempo – at times feeling a bit rushed, but he always maintained a certain elegance. His commanding tone and massive dynamic range made the lasting impact, however – an unflagging intensity which paid its dividends especially in the cadenza. Gerstein elected for the larger of the two the composer supplied; beginning with a rumbling in the bass it built to immense power. The cadenza quite ingeniously also served as the movement’s recapitulation; without much left to say after that monstrosity the movement ended quietly, almost impressionistically.

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Mathias Pintscher and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

A doleful lament marked the slow movement, encouraged by the choir of winds and long-bowed strings. Gerstein’s line was initially distressed but soon gave way to display his lyrical gift, and a multitude of moods were traversed, in turns scherzo-like, impassioned, and the sudden yet seamless transition to the finale. A vigorous march, bright and brilliant, offered no respite for Gerstein’s prodigious stamina and technical arsenal, up to and including the triumphant major-key ending in cascading glory. An encore was nearly demanded; Gerstein obliged with a Chopin waltz of effortless elegance.

Bartók’s The Wooden Prince, in only its third Cleveland Orchestra performance, was a foray into much less familiar territory. A one-act ballet spanning the continuum of nearly an hour, it is scored for an astonishingly large orchestra (some highlights: quadruple woodwinds – including two contrabassoons and two saxophones – an extensive percussion section, and four-hands celesta). The work began with a mysterious sounding drone (perhaps echoing Wagner’s Das Rheingold), firmly in a late-Romantic idiom. In many ways, this is a work in the tradition of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking scores for the Ballets Russes, with the intensity of some passages rivaling even that of the Rite.

The story of The Wooden Prince is a bit convoluted, but certain instruments representing specific characters served as a loose roadmap. The sweetly playful tone Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet deftly brought the princess’s coquettishness to life, and a folk melody in the low strings that would later resurface was quite striking. The dance between the princess and titular wooden prince (much to the chagrin of the real prince) was given with a relentless drive and folksy authenticity, with clever scoring emphasizing the prince’s wooden composition – castanets, xylophone, and col legno strings. Robert Walters’ fine English horn solo brought forth an apotheosis, buttressed by heavenly high strings (to my ears, another nod to Wagner, namely the prelude to Lohengrin). A happily-ever-after ending was achieved, marked by peaceful resolution and a sparkling celesta. Like the Rachmaninov that preceded, this was a supreme test of stamina and energy which Pintscher and the orchestra surmounted admirably. By happy coincidence (or smart programming), those interested in Pintscher’s other persona as a composer will have a chance to hear one of his works next week.

Kirill GersteinPhoto: Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein, photo credit Marco Borggreve
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Metzmacher and Tetzlaff in coloristic evocation of fin de siècle Vienna

Cleveland Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher, conductor
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 27, 2018

Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1
Berg: Violin Concerto
 Encore:
 Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 – Largo
Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5

Vienna at the turn of the 20th-century was the site of seismic changes in culture, with the birth of the modern, wary consciousness brought on by the likes of Freud, Klimt, and Schnitzler – and the revolutions in music were no less consequential. Branded as the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg and his disciples – principally Berg and Webern – upended the common practice period harmony that had been foundational to Western music for centuries. The Cleveland Orchestra’s program this week, with guest conductor Ingo Metzmacher at the helm, included a work from each of the triptych of iconoclastic Viennese composers for a noticeably underpopulated but raptly attentive Severance Hall.

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Ingo Metzmacher, photo credit Opera Musica

Webern’s Passacaglia served as beguiling opener. Dubbed his opus 1, it was certainly not his inaugural work, but the first major composition to result from his studies with Schoenberg. An eight bar bassline opened, suggesting not a link to not just the form’s Baroque forebears, but to the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (and it should be remembered that Schoenberg, whose radicalism was rooted in a keen sense of history, would later write an essay provocatively titled “Brahms the Progressive”). The orchestra’s gift for razor-sharp clarity and precision paid its dividends amply in this work, encouraged by Metzmacher’s guidance even without a utilizing a baton. Even in this rather academic form, the music was of eerie beauty, building to a supercharged climax only to evaporate at the end.

While the opening and closing selections were from their respective composers’ early years, hanging on to the last embers of tonality, Berg’s Violin Concerto was a work of full maturity and one of the crowning achievements of twelve-tone serialism. Matters began with unassuming arpeggios, first in the harp, then in Christian Tetzlaff’s solo violin – despite its serialist rigor, the work ingeniously never ventured far from an oblique invocation of tonality (and Clevelanders will likely be amused by Robert Conrad’s hilarious twelve-tone “infomercial”, wherein the not-so-ostentatious virtuosity of the Berg concerto is duly lampooned). Tetzlaff’s long-bowed playing emanated a biting lyricism, contrasted by the more jocular interpolation of a Carinthian folk song. The violinist was deftly balanced against the richly colored orchestral tapestry, playing with an exacting intensity.

A ferocious unease began the second movement, later countered by the wistful reminiscence of another tonal source, the Lutheran chorale Es ist genug, almost monastic in presentation – and fitting its elegiac subtitle “to the memory of an angel”, referencing the tragic death of Manon Gropious. In the final moments, the violin solo left the orchestra behind to be among the angels in its haunting close. Tetzlaff offered an encore in the Largo from Bach’s third sonata for unaccompanied violin, touchingly dedicating it to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh in response to the horrific events earlier in the day. A poignant performance of deeply felt beauty, and a much-needed moment of solace.

The remainder of the evening was devoted to Schoenberg’s extensive Pelleas und Mellisande. A far cry from the language with which Schoenberg would make waves, the work is lush and hyper-Romantic (though not quite to the excess of the earlier Gurre-Lieder). A tone poem spanning a continuous arc of over 40 minutes, its rich, pictorial detailing sounded very much akin to the contemporaneous works of Strauss (who convinced Schoenberg to take on Pelleas as a subject matter, concurrent with Debussy’s opera – which TCO performed to acclaim not long ago). As delineated in the program books, the work can also be conceived of as following a four movement symphonic structure, but I wasn’t convinced those demarcations were particularly useful.

Wagnerian leitmotifs depicting the characters were introduced at the onset, uneasily commingling in foretelling an unhappy fate. The music swelled in passionate ebb and flow with top-drawer orchestral playing, though I was especially struck by the lush clarinet solos of Afendi Yusuf. Jestful music depicted the symbolic fountain scene, and functioned as a scherzo of sorts (and somewhat reminiscent of “Klaus-Narr” from the Gurre-Lieder), and there was a fine viola solo from principal Wesley Collins. A love scene followed, surely taking cue from Act II of Tristan – a divine serenity only to be caustically interrupted by Golaud. Mellisande’s death was marked by a funereal downward procession, in what was some of the work’s most affecting music. The epilogue began with a stately lyricism, but ultimately the mysteries propounded the unknowing central to Maeterlinck’s symbolist fantasy – different here than the perfumes of Debussy, but nonetheless shrouded in ambiguity.

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Christian Tetzlaff, photo credit Giorgia Bertazzi

Welser-Möst concludes autumn residency with a powerhouse Mahler 2

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2018

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

There’s no question about it: The Cleveland Orchestra’s 101st season has gotten off to a stellar start, with the weekend seeing the last of four diverse and weighty programs led by Welser-Möst before he leaves for engagements elsewhere, not to return until January’s performances of Ariadne auf Naxos. The program in question was devoted to Mahler, familiar territory for these forces, namely the imposing and ultimately glorious Second Symphony – a work not performed on this stage since 2007.

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Welser-Möst, Wong, Harvey, and Cooke (l-r) with Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus

A funeral march is integral to virtually all of Mahler’s symphonies, and the Second in fact begins with one – and a formidable one at that. Nervous tremolos opened, leading inexorably down to the grave in this ferocious outpouring, though interspersed with moments of repose in what made for starkly garish contrasts, with the latter particularly encouraged by the plaintive oboe of Frank Rosenwein. Tempos were brisk – perhaps a bit too much so for my taste – but the yield was music of arresting power, never to be sentimentalized. A stirring brass chorale suggested the venerable Dies irae, and the movement concluded in desolation via a final downward gesture, a fate sounding all but inescapable.

But of course Mahler’s arduous journey doesn’t end there, with the following Andante moderato a folksy foil, as if the struggles immediately preceding had been entirely forgotten in this carefree ländler. A much less tightly-wound tempo achieved a simple, rustic peace, with some playful counterpoint between the strings and winds, leading towards a more animated central section. The main theme returned in a gentle pizzicato, unimpeachably good-natured. A thud in the timpani marked the third movement, with sinuous sixteenths testing the dexterity of the orchestra – a challenge easily surmounted, though again I found the tempo choice a tad rushed. This was the first of two nods to Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs, here a purely instrumental expansion of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, and not entirely a blithe affair as matters erupted into a primal scream.

In another moment of extreme contrast, a sudden shift to light and the divine was achieved in “Urlicht” (another Wunderhorn text), with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s rich introspection a voice from another world. The brass chorales were heavenly, and though only a few minutes in duration, this movement was easily the emotional heart of the entire work. The text concludes with longing for “das ewig selig Leben” – in his pre-concert lecture, Rabbi Roger Klein suggested that Mahler knew that “Urlicht” alone was inadequate to achieve these lofty ambitions, hence necessitating the massive finale, a grueling undertaking.

The calm of “Urlicht” was immediately uprooted with fury unrelenting. An offstage brass added a spatial dimension to the score’s rich detailing (some flubbed notes notwithstanding), and the resurrection motif was unassumingly introduced in the trombones and trumpets. Climaxes were of shattering power, although a more intimate moment saw the fluttering flute of Joshua Smith joined by delicate touches of piccolo. The chorus entered as a unified whisper, building to great force in due course. Joélle Harvey offered an angelic soprano, naturally blending with Cooke, and the organ added even more magnificence to work’s stunningly spectacular conclusion, surely representing the pinnacle of human triumph.

Welser-Möst explores Prokofiev symphonies with a Bartók centerpiece

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Severance Hall
September 30, 2018

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, Classical
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Sz. 95
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44

Franz Welser-Möst has expressed an interest in devoting part of the next few seasons to exploring works – particularly those lesser known – of both Prokofiev and Schubert. The first installment came last weekend, with a program bookended by Prokofiev symphonies. Of Prokofiev’s seven works in the genre, only the First and the Fifth are played with any regularity, the remainder being brushed to the periphery. While the remaining five are admittedly somewhat uneven in quality, an opportunity to discover them – particularly at the level of playing witnessed over the weekend – is emphatically welcomed.

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Yefim Bronfman, photo credit Oded Antman

Familiar territory opened the program, however, with the composer’s First Symphony, the so-called Classical for its patent inspiration to Haydn but as through the wit of a 20th-century modernist. It opened with a burst of energy capped by its classical charm, with transparent textures balancing a classical economy and Prokofiev’s piquant harmonies. The Larghetto was gentle and untroubled, evidencing a side of the composer wholly different than the enfant terrible as he is often characterized. The gavotte glanced back in time even further with its roots in the Baroque; here a stately theme was spiked with sweet dissonances, a creation that must have satisfied the composer as he re-used the material in Romeo and Juliet. Although I did find the flutes to be a bit overzealous, the dynamics in the movement’s conclusion were brought down to a whisper, setting the stage for the high-spirited finale.

The rarely-heard Third Symphony closed the afternoon, with the orchestra blossoming substantially, no longer in classical proportions for this daunting, unwieldy work. Some its material was taken from the composer’s ill-fated opera The Fiery Angel, here completely reimagined as a symphony (the Fourth Symphony was also based on material from a stage work, namely The Prodigal Son). The clangorous opening movement was an affair of overwhelmingly dense texture, in some semblance of sonata form, difficult to follow yet the orchestra had a keen sense of its architecture. Striking orchestrations yielded unforgiving sonorities, and matters closed with an extended passage in the contrabassoon leading down to the grave.

A strained wistfulness opened the Andante, less unrelenting than the previous but still filled with a pervasive unease. There were notable solo contributions from concertmaster Peter Otto and clarinetist Afendi Yusuf, and eerie glissandos added to the restlessness. The third movement overflowed with a motoric drive and bizarre effects, not the least of which were the rapid yet quiet glissandos that dotted the score’s dense pages. A more measured B section offered momentary respite, only for matters to end with an eruption in the brass. The finale was shrouded in the darkness of the low brass, merciless in its shrill bombast inexorably leading to a crashing ending.

Situated between the two symphonies was Bartók’s second piano concerto, a formidable work notorious for its technical demands, here conquered by one its greatest champions, Yefim Bronfman (incidentally, the last soloist to perform the work here was Lang Lang who graced the same stage during the previous night’s gala). The opening flourish saw Bronfman in counterpoint with the brass, and the pianist delivered with a kinetic drive, this work ideal for his supersized virtuosity and steel-fingered playing. The movement continued apace with relentlessness but yet a sheer brilliance of sound, and Bronfman was in fine balance with his orchestral colleagues, never at the risk of getting swallowed by their expansiveness.

Plaintive strings – their first appearance – opened the central movement, sounding almost incorporeal after the mechanistic physicality of the preceding. A simple, direct melody in the piano offered utter clarity of tone, while the contrasting Presto was rapid and unsettling. The slow passage returned, filled with spectral trills, evidencing Bartók’s idiosyncratic “night music.” A bass drum initiated the finale, and matters exploded with a nervous energy, dashing any hopes of a peaceful conclusion – and Bronfman’s flurry of double octaves had to be seen to be believed.

Cleveland Orchestra opens season with singular ambition

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Alexandre Tharaud, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 20, 2018

Rathbun: Pantheon
Abrahamsen: Left, alone
Tchaikovsky: Suite from Swan Lake, Op. 20

Encore:
Tchaikovsky: Marche slave, Op. 31

After a momentous centennial season, Franz Welser-Möst and his Cleveland Orchestra are back down to business, opening their second century with a challenging program emblematic of this orchestra’s remarkable ambition. Instead of beginning the season with tried-and-true warhorses as some orchestras might do, the first half was comprised of a world premiere and a US premiere, and even the more populist second half – Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – was a welcome alternative to the composer’s evergreen symphonies.

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Franz Welser-Möst receiving the Distinguished Service Award from Richard K. Smucker, all photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The inaugural work of the season came from the orchestra’s own ranks, assistant principal oboe Jeffrey Rathbun, an accomplished composer in his own right with this being the fourth occasion on which TCO has performed a work of his. Rathbun is certainly a man who knows this orchestra well having been a member for 28 years, and the aptly named Pantheon was a lovely tribute to his colleagues. The work began in the rumbling timpani, with fragments quickly coalescing into a vigorous drive. A more relaxed B section followed, generally tonal and quasi-Romantic, as well as being a veritable “concerto for orchestra” featuring solos from nearly every instrument, showcasing the beauty and power of The Cleveland Orchestra. A dulcet passage from concertmaster Peter Otto was a highlight, but unsurprisingly, the most extensive solo went to the oboe – although Rathbun opted to experience the work from the audience, giving the solo to double-reed colleague Frank Rosenwein.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Jeffrey Rathbun

In the spirit of contemporary music, this weekend’s concerts were dedicated to the memory of Oliver Knussen, a major force with deep ties to Cleveland. Matters continued apace with the first American performance of Left, alone (written 2014-15) by leading Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. Abrahamsen is a composer quite familiar to this orchestra; its performances of his song cycle let me tell you were given at both Severance Hall and Carnegie Hall to widespread critical acclaim in 2016. As the title cleverly suggests, Left, alone is a piano concerto for the left hand alone, in the spirit of Ravel’s which was memorably performed last February (perhaps a future season could include a survey of left hand piano concertos?). Making his Cleveland Orchestra debut was the work’s dedicatee, French pianist Alexandre Tharaud.

The notion of a work for the left hand alone is one of deep personal significance to Abrahamsen who himself was born with a palsy that impaired use of his right hand. Left, alone is conceived in two parts, each further divided into three interconnected sections. It opened percussively with the center of gravity in the piano’s bottom register, incessant in its rhythmic complexities. In addition to Tharaud’s solo line, there was scoring for an orchestral piano (two hands), played by Joela Jones in counterpoint with Tharaud to yield an intriguing spatial effect. The following section was markedly slower, almost impressionistic – more suggested than executed – while the movement’s conclusion was of greater motion.

The latter half opened with a very brief statement in the solo piano with a touch of trumpet, nearly suspended in time, while matters became wild and unrelenting in the ensuing section, more than living up to its designation of Prestissimo tempestuoso. The final section was the most extended, first invoking again the suspended atmosphere by way of a repeated gesture. At one point Tharaud was instructed to pluck the piano’s strings, illustrative of the concerto’s diverse palette of timbre. The texture became more animated and virtuosic until its perplexingly abrupt ending, as if being cut off in mid-sentence. A work that surely deserves a second hearing, and one couldn’t imagine a stronger advocate than Tharaud who has certainly earned an invitation back to Severance Hall.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Alexandre Tharaud

Following intermission was the presentation of the Distinguished Service Award which this year went to none other than Welser-Möst. In his heartfelt remarks, the conductor reminded the audience of music’s essential value, deeming it “nutrition for our souls.” A 40-minute suite from Swan Lake concluded, with various selections from the complete ballet culled by Welser-Möst. The overture began with doleful solos from Rosenwein and clarinetist Afendi Yusuf, while the waltz demonstrated the composer’s early gift for the dance form which would be used to such great effect in his later symphonies and ballets, its graceful themes burgeoning into a boisterous affair. Scene (No. 10) was marked by a plaintive oboe solo, showing beauty in tragedy. “Dance of the Swans” was appropriately featherlight, while “Odette and the Prince” featured a lively dialogue between the harp, violin, and cello. A series of four national dances followed with an especially ebullient csárdás, and the final scene was given with a searing passion towards its tragic end.

Continuing the celebratory spirit of opening weekend, an encore was presented, namely the same composer’s Marche slave. A sinuous, fluid melody was quintessentially Tchaikovskyian in this energetic workout of a brilliant showpiece.

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Franz Welser-Möst leading The Cleveland Orchestra in Swan Lake

Summers@Severance closes in homage to 18th-century masters

Cleveland Orchestra
Jonathan Cohen, conductor
Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
August 24, 2018

Handel: An Occasional Oratorio, HWV 62 – Overture
Haydn: Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major, Hob. XVIII/11
Mozart: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K183

This summer’s concluding offering at Severance Hall from The Cleveland Orchestra culled three masterworks from the 18th-century, compressing the tried-and-true overture-concerto-symphony program format to just over an hour. Making his Cleveland Orchestra debut was conductor Jonathan Cohen, a specialist in this repertoire of particular note as artistic director of the early music ensemble Arcangelo.

The earliest work was presented first, namely the overture to Handel’s Occasional Oratorio in its first Cleveland Orchestra performance. Cohen led the reduced, almost chamber-sized orchestra in tight direction from the harpsichord, with the overture opening bold and stately, contoured by the dotted rhythms as per the French style. The small brass section added a sheen of brightness, and following the introductory material, matters took off via the fleet strings. Cast in four sections, the penultimate featured a lovely long-breathed oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein, and the work concluded in a brief but jubilant march.

Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major served as a platform for another local debut, that of South African keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout. The opening movement was lithe and sprightly, encouraged by Bezuidenhout’s crisp playing, direct in expression and always of utmost economy. The cadenza demonstrated his fine technique, but not without moments of introspection. In the slow movement, the sweet lyricism offered repose if not quite achieving the rapt beauty one would find in a Mozart concerto, and Hungarian finale recalled the composer’s dutiful service to the Esterházy family. Bursting with a folksy joviality, a vigorous theme in concert with the horns was of particular delight.

Mozart’s first minor key symphony – No. 25 in G minor – concluded the evening (incidentally, a few months prior TCO traversed Mozart’s only other minor key symphony, also in G minor). Opening in energetic Sturm und Drang, a looming darkness was assuaged by a singing oboe line and the buoyancy of the dance-like secondary subject. The delicate gestures of the Andante counted as calm following the storm, while the main theme of the ensuing minuet was sharply punctuated, contrasted by the mellifluous winds and brass of the trio – though here and elsewhere regrettably plagued by intonation issues. A nervous energy began the finale, its potential soon becoming kinetic to guide the work with inevitability to its ominous conclusion.

Hough and Imani Winds a sheer delight in Mostly Mozart’s A Little Night Music

Stephen Hough, piano
Imani Winds
Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
August 10, 2018

Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque
Mozart: Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, K452
Poulenc: Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, FP 100

Encore:
Poulenc, arr. Hough: No. 1 from Trois mouvements perpétuels, FP 14

Right on the heels of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s concluding performance of the summer season, one had a late-night opportunity to see pianist Stephen Hough in a much more intimate setting: a remarkable chamber music performance with the Imani Winds at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, part of the festival’s A Little Night Music series. Hough opened the program sans winds in a luminous, shimmering account of Debussy’s Clair de lune. Debussy is a composer to whom Hough has recently turned ample attention, releasing a very fine all-Debussy album at the beginning of the year (although one would need to look to his French Album for a recording of the present work). The acoustics in the Penthouse were a bit dry, but the striking setting of flickering candlelight and the Manhattan skyline made it a small price to pay, an atmospheric complement to the rapturous beauty of Hough’s pianism.

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Stephen Hough, photo credit Sim Canetty-Clarke

The remainder of the brief program was devoted to sterling examples of chamber works for piano and winds by Mozart and Poulenc. Hough noted that these disparate composers had little in common musically save for their wry sense of humor. A stately introduction opened the former’s Quintet (K452), giving way to a jaunty primary theme which beautifully melded Hough’s elegant keyboard playing with the graceful winds – a harmonious blend of diverse timbres. The Larghetto was sweet and dulcet in its delicate trills and ornaments, and an almost sinfully sumptuous melody was passed through the winds. The finale was a jovial affair yet in no apparent hurry with a lyrical subject at its core.

Poulenc’s Sextet, dating from the early 1930s, added the flute to the forces onstage. The commanding opening brought to life a scene bustling with coloristic contrasts and manic syncopations evoking American ragtime. A searching monologue in the bassoon (Monica Ellis) and impressionistic writing from the piano offered some introspection, only for the movement to conclude in a dramatic flourish. An underlying melancholy – perhaps another parallel to Mozart – was palpable in the central divertissement with some especially fine playing from oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. More frenzied contrast was manifest in due course, with a rambunctious and perky finale leading inexorably to a bright and brilliant end.

A lone encore continued the ensemble’s exploration of Poulenc, namely Hough’s own transcription for the sextet of the first of the Mouvements perpétuels (originally a work for solo piano). Hough was certainly apt in remarking it had “not a bit of angst”, and the seamless performance closed the evening in pure delight.

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Imani Winds, photo credit Matt Murphy

Blomstedt and Brahms: an inspired pairing

Cleveland Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 27, 2018

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

The opening Summers@Severance evening for this season saw the return of Herbert Blomstedt, remarkably now 91 years old but hardly flagging in vitality. Draped in a white coat, he dressed the part of the elder statesman that he is, masterfully leading the orchestra in a single work, namely Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Tonight sees him reprise the program at Blossom with the addition of Mozart’s Jupiter – while I wished that or at least an overture could have padded out Friday’s brief program, the gripping performance certainly mitigated the desire for more music.

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Herbert Blomstedt, photo credit Gert Mothes

Blomstedt’s graceful, batonless conducting produced the gentle rise and fall of the primary theme, and the balance he achieved was quite idiosyncratic – rather than opting for a homogenized sound, each instrument family was clearly delineated in a striking array of coloristic variety. During the development, the main theme resurfaced as a stentorian skeleton of itself to mesmerizing effect, and matters built to searing passion and heightened drama. An arresting horn call opened the slow movement, only to give way to graceful and peaceful plodding, rallying to vigor as needed. A fine clarinet solo from Daniel McKelway was a memorable highlight.

The scherzo was given a spirited workout, gleaming with brassy exuberance and the unmistakable ring of the triangle. A progression of eight deftly sculpted chords served as the bedrock of the imposing passacaglia finale. Prominent roles for each instrument abounded in the movement’s intricacies, almost like a concerto for orchestra, and Blomstedt guided his colleagues to a blistering conclusion.

In other Cleveland Orchestra news, concertmaster William Preucil was officially suspended earlier in day in response to multiple allegations of sexual assault, right on the heels of a major exposé in The Washington Post detailing assault in classical music circles. As noted in the linked article, some of these allegations have been public for over a decade – I was relieved to hear of some decisive action taking place, overdue as it might be.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season: Top 10 Performances

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Other mentions:

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.

Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season closes in the magnificence of Beethoven’s Ninth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Erin Wall, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano
Norbert Ernst, tenor
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 17, 2018

Beethoven: Große Fuge, Op. 133 (version for string orchestra)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, Choral

Note: for comments on the May 10 performance, inclusive of Symphony Nos. 1 & 3 and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, please see here. For the performances from May 11-13 of Symphony Nos. 2 and 4-8 along with the Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore overtures, please see here.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s watershed centennial season, as well as the ambitious Prometheus Project has reached a glorious conclusion with a pair of Beethoven’s monumental masterpieces. While the biggest draw was certainly the exultant Ninth Symphony, the inclusion of the Große Fuge made the final entry in the series much more than a traversal of that well-known symphony, but a probing survey of the apex of Beethoven’s late style. Originally the concluding movement of the Op. 130 string quartet, the daunting Große Fuge functioned remarkably well independently; presented in transcription for string orchestra, it has appeared with frequency on a Welser-Möst program in spite of (or perhaps because of) its rigor.

Cleveland Orchestra, Beethoven
Welser-Möst conducting the Große Fuge, all photos credit Ken Blaze, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The string quartet’s orchestral potential was in full bloom here, immediately apparent from richness of the strings in the jarring opening and spiky dissonances. Calmer interludes only occasionally mitigated the bracing severity of the work, and it was quite a sight to so many bows in perfect synchronization, even in the most dizzyingly complex passages wherein Beethoven fully realized his contrapuntal potential hinted at in the Ninth Symphony.

That symphony, of unprecedented length during its time, generously filled the balance of the lavish program. Opening with protean, elemental germs of themes, it explored the most fundamental of intervals before coalescing into a rigorous sonata allegro, given with the precision and drive of a well-oiled machine. The scherzo of the Ninth is no lightweight trifle, but a creation just as weighty as the opening movement which the orchestra played with a relentless vigor, at times proceeding with a march-like swagger, elsewhere, as if in ghostly imitation of itself. Rustic warmth from the horns and the songfulness of the strings made for a trio that occupied a world apart. A choir of winds introduced the slow movement, giving way to a theme in the strings of absolute serenity, a moment where such a stormy figure as Beethoven was truly at peace with the world – in line with the love transcendent expressed unambiguously through Schiller’s text in the finale.

Even after two centuries, the vast closing movement stands in a class of its own in its ingenious melding of orchestra, choir, and soloists, as well the way it manages to encapsulate the entire symphony as a unified whole. A striking bitonality functioned as a call to arms, the climax of the tension between D minor and B flat major established early on. The main theme of each preceding movement was presented sequentially, a reminiscence as refracted through a newfound vantage point and punctuated by instrumental recitatives. The “Ode to Joy” first surfaced in the low strings, seemingly innocuous but blossoming to the full orchestra in due course.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton had a commanding recitative in the work’s first vocal appearance, delivering text written by the composer himself as a prologue to Schiller’s poem. There was a satisfying sense of coming full circle in engaging Burton for the season finale as he had last appeared on this stage during the performance of The Cunning Little Vixen with which this season began. The quartet of vocal soloists was remarkably well-balanced and of a natural chemistry; tenor Norbert Ernst had a notable moment during the movement’s “Turkish” episode while Erin Wall and Jennifer Johnston filled out the upper registers. Most impressive, however, was the stunning power of the chorus, particularly in the dazzling fugato, expertly prepared under the direction of Lisa Wong (who was officially promoted to chorus director just the day before). In taut cohesion with their orchestral counterparts, they led the symphony to a close of magnificent splendor, a memorable end to a memorable season.

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