From Scandinavia to Italy, Cleveland Orchestra closes season in colorful travelogue

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 23, 2019

Grieg: Morning Mood, The Death of Åse, and At the Wedding from Peer Gynt, Op. 23
Sibelius: Kaiutar, No. 4 from Six Songs, Op. 72
Sibelius: Illale, No. 6 from Seven Songs, Op. 17
Sibelius: Aus banger Brust, No. 4 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Svarta rosor, No. 1 from Six Songs, Op. 36
Sibelius: Kom nu hit, död!, No. 1 from Two Songs for Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night, Op. 60
Sibelius: Im Feld ein Mädchen singt, No. 3 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Die stille Stadt, No. 5 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Var det en dröm?, No. 4 from Five Songs, Op. 37
Strauss: Aus Italien, Op. 16

Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra closed the 2018-19 season in an alluring program, with all selections stemming from the late 19th-century (and in to the early 20th), connected by Romantic fascinations from awe-inspiring destinations to drama and poetry. Beginning the evening were selections from Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt. Welser-Möst culled his own suite of three excerpts rather than opting for either of the two suites the composer later produced. The selections were performed in reverse order of appearance in the source material, opening with the familiar Morning Mood (which serves as the prelude to Act 4). Silvery flutes beckoned the morning, with the songful theme passed around the woodwinds before appearing in the strings. Welser-Möst’s brisk tempo ensured matters were never sentimentalized. Lush and mournful strings made The Death of Åse the emotional crux, easily a precursor to Barber’s Adagio. At the Wedding (which opens the complete work) was given with vigor and joyous abandon. A more languorous theme was very finely played in turn by the principal winds while Wesley Collins’ offstage viola radiated folksy charm.

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Simon Keenlyside and Franz Welser-Möst, photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

On the heels of his lieder recital a few days prior, Simon Keenlyside returned for the evening’s centerpiece and highpoint – a helping of eight of the seldom-performed songs of Sibelius. The songs at hand were variously in Finnish, Swedish, or German, and in some cases orchestrated by Sibelius himself, others by contemporaries. Keenlyside brought out the lyrical qualities of the Swedish language in Kaiutar, with an orchestration that encouraged its fantastical, fairy-tale atmosphere. Crepuscular strings made Illale a true gem, and the next selection turned to German in a setting of Richard Dehmel’s Aus banger Brust. Dehmel’s poetry served as text for the likes of Strauss and Schoenberg, and Sibelius proved no less adept with the work’s acerbic dissonances and moving solo passages from concertmaster Peter Otto in faithful service of the text. Svarta rosor, a comparatively better-known quantity, was of robust lyricism and grand emotions, nearly operatic with an unforgiving close to boot.

Unlike the others all originally scored for voice and piano, Kom nu hit, död! came from a set of two Swedish settings of Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night for voice and guitar, given a rather gloomy reading at present. The richness of Im Feld ein Mädchen singt could easily have been mistaken for Strauss, while Die stille Stadt – another Dehmel setting – maintained a remarkably surreal atmosphere, enhanced by ethereal sounds from the glockenspiel, harp, and high strings. The last selection, Var det en dröm?, displayed again Keenlyside’s keen ability to seamlessly switch languages, and brought matters to a passionate, satisfying close, feeling almost as if these eight otherwise disparate songs were conceived as a unified cycle.

Strauss’ Aus Italien drew inspiration from an Italian journey undertaken by the composer as an impressionable youth, and became the first entry in his great series of tone poems. It’s an immature work to be sure, yet many Straussian hallmarks are already firmly in place, setting the stage for the musical revolutions that would soon be flowing from his pen. This was certainly apparent in the opening Auf der Campagne which could only have been written by Strauss, with elemental beginnings burgeoning into material larger than life. Brassy passages were of arresting vigor, although otherwise matters in performance weren’t entirely polished, sounding as if some extra rehearsal time was needed – no doubt, I suspect, ironed out by the Saturday performance.

Rather than the single-movement architecture of the successive tone poems, Aus Italien was conceived far less cohesively as four distinct portraits. In Roms Ruinen followed suit, generally lighter fare of Italianate charm interspersed with more solemn moments in awe of the eponymous ruins. Strauss’ idiomatic orchestral effects certainly began to crystallize in Am Strande von Sorrent, a coloristic painting of the sun-drenched coast of Sorrento. The closing Neapolitanisches Volksleben marked the work as a foreigner’s less than reliable view of Italy in that Strauss mistook a popular tune of the day for bone fide Neapolitan folk music (I was somewhat reminded of the All’Italiana movement from the Busoni piano concerto heard earlier this season – though there the composer was no foreigner, it too juxtaposed Italianate folk melodies in the context of an otherwise very Teutonic musical language). In any case, matters were nonetheless of an infectious joie de vivre, banal yet so colorfully orchestrated. The orchestra’s committed playing heightened one’s interest: ultimately the rewards were mixed, though the players on stage made as strong a case as they could in this vintage work displaying the budding composer’s incipient genius.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra in Aus Italien
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Keenlyside commands a dark, penetrating Winterreise

Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Natalia Katyukova, piano
Reinberger Chamber Hall
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 19, 2019

Schubert: Winterreise, D911

If local audiences hadn’t quite gotten their fill of late Schubert with the weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra performance of the E flat major Mass, Simon Keenlyside offered the composer’s incomparable song cycle Winterreise in recital Sunday night, a prelude to his appearance with the orchestra the following week. The intimate Reinberger Chamber Hall – all too seldom used as a performance space – made for an ideal setting for the soul-baring songs, forlorn and icy cold. Though perhaps not the most seasonally appropriate on a spring evening, as if on cue with the subject matter, the temperature outside dropped appreciably nearing performance time. Supporting Keenlyside was pianist Natalia Katyukova who provided a remarkable accompaniment, on par with the baritone’s passionate delivery.

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Caspar David Friedrich, Winterlandschaft mit Kirche (photo credit Wikimedia Commons)

The impact of this 70-minute song cycle – although as the program books correctly noted, Winterreise isn’t truly a cycle given the lack of recurrence – was truly visceral, and one could scarcely imagine a better advocate than Keenlyside. Originally scored for tenor, Schubert allowed for other voice types, and Keenlyside’s case for Winterreise belonging to the domain of baritones was thoroughly convincing, the lower register well-suited to the gloomy poetry of Wilhelm Müller. The highlights were many, beginning with the opening Gute Nacht, strengthened by the rich darkness of the baritone and pained dissonances in the piano. Die Wetterfahne was of angst and unrest, while there was intense drama in Erstarrung, with some modest acting from Keenlyside to enhance the outcry – though this acting was less directed at the audience and more to convey the sense that we were witnessing a deep internal monologue.

A liquescent, rippling accompaniment and gorgeous lyricism from the singer in Der Lindenbaum made for an early highpoint in the cycle. I was struck by the palpable pain on the words “mein Herz” during Auf dem Flusse, while Frühlingstraum offered some momentary respite – that is, until the titular dream ended, the song residing in a tenuous gray area between dream and reality. Einsamkeit was as forlorn as the title suggested, and time stood still in Der greise Kopf, wherein the speaker wished he was graying and thus closer to end of life – but such was only an illusion from the wintry frost, the agony of life prolonged. Die Krähe was utterly haunting in both melody and imagery (perhaps an inspiration to Edgar Allan Poe?). There was heart-wrenching isolation in Der Wegweiser, in which the speaker felt shunned by society; Mut! saw his last embers of fiery defiance – buttressed by Keenlyside’s foot-stomping – before resignation. The unnervingly inconclusive Der Leiermann saw Keenlyside staring off into the distance, mere feet from the audience but psychologically miles away as matters remained painfully unresolved. I don’t often get the goosebumps like I did from this performance, magnificent yet exhausting in its depth and darkness.

Musical discoveries abound in Bychkov’s Cleveland Orchestra program

Cleveland Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Katia Labèque, piano
Marielle Labèque, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 9, 2019

Glanert: Weites Land, Musik mit Brahms
Bruch: Concerto for Two Pianos, Op. 88a
 Encore:
 Ravel: Le jardin féerique, from Ma mère l’Oye
Smetana: Vyšehrad, Vltava, and Šárka from Má vlast

The Cleveland Orchestra certainly has a knack for presenting programs that resist the tried-and-true, and Thursday’s concert was no exception, another triumph of imaginative programming with both works on the first half receiving their inaugural performances from this ensemble. Guest conductor Semyon Bychkov has championed the works of contemporary composer Detlev Glanert, and opened the evening with the US premiere of the 2013 work Weites Land. Roughly translating to English as Wide Open Land, the work also bears the subtitle Musik mit Brahms. Like Brahms, Glanert hails from Hamburg, and the work of the elder composer has often served as his guiding lighthere quite patently so, with the arching primary theme of the Fourth Symphony serving as the present work’s structural backbone. An obvious invocation of the symphony opened, familiar for a fleeting moment, then morphing into dissipated modernity. The Brahms theme served as guideposts at various intervals, while the wide, open spaces between were filled with colorfully dissonant filigree, often unexpected yet still approachable, and ultimately a brief Brahmsian gesture brought matters to a close.

A true rarity followed in the Concerto for Two Pianos by Max Bruch, featuring the acclaimed Labèque sisters (who opted for the Bruch in favor of the initially programmed work for the same forces by Martinů). Bruch completed the work in 1915, near the tail end of his career, in fact with another sibling duo in mind, Rose and Ottilie Sutro. To the composer’s dismay, the dedicatees performed the work in a vastly simplified version, and Bruch’s original version didn’t surface to the public until the 1970s. Bruch’s intentions were certainly respected and challenges easily surmounted Thursday evening; between the two pianists, the opening theme was presented in eight octaves, a commanding beginning saturated in solemnity. An exacting fugue followed, beginning in the pianos, and blossoming to great power when the orchestra joined.

Bychkov and the Labèque sisters’ 1993 recording of the Bruch concerto

A slow introduction marked the next movement, with sweeping arpeggios on the keyboards and gentle touches in the oboe from Frank Rosenwein. The movement proper was of scherzo-like playfulness, contrasted by the lyrical beauty of the succeeding. The octave theme returned in the finale, a passionate last vestige of German Romanticism (indeed, the four movement structure certainly pointed towards the Brahms concertos as inspiration). A work which soloists and conductor clearly believe in (having recorded it some years ago), though to my ears not the most melodically rewarding. The duo encored with the final segment of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye – gorgeous playing which said more in those few minutes than in Bruch’s twenty-five.

Bychkov currently serves as music director of the Czech Philharmonic, and accordingly was able to offer penetrating insights to the first three selections of Smetana’s Má vlast. A work central to Czech musical culture, it inaugurates the storied Prague Spring International Music Festival every year on May 12, the anniversary of the composer’s death – coming just days after the present performance. Vyšehrad opened with a pair of harps, lush and rhapsodic, to set the stage for the epic tale of the namesake fortress. The Vyšehrad theme – which reappears throughout the cycle – was first sounded by the horns, warm and mellow. The vicissitudes of the castle through history were depicted, always majestic in the end.

By far the most recognizable of the six tone poems, Vltava began with liquescent flutes in evocation of the confluence of the springs that form the titular river. Matters swelled to a richly lyrical theme, arching, aching, and the picturesque journey of the river was painted in delirious detail. Most memorable was the “night music”, fantastical and sublime, as well as the appearance of the Vyšehrad theme when the river snaked its way through Prague, displaying the full splendor of the Cleveland brass. The ferocity with which Šárka opened portended the darkly murderous tale to come. Folk-inflected material and the lambent clarinet of Afendi Yusuf offered some momentary respite, yet the music inexorably culminated in a violent, gruesome end. One’s appetite was certainly whetted for more Smetana – as noted in the program books, the orchestra hasn’t performed Má vlast complete since 1976, so surely it is high time for a traversal of the full cycle!

Michail Jurowski makes belated US debut in blistering Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky

Cleveland Orchestra
Michail Jurowski, conductor
Vadim Gluzman, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 5, 2019

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
 Encore:
 Bach: Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 – Sarabande
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, The Year 1905

Last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts marked not only Michail Jurowski’s local debut, but – astonishingly for a 75-year-old with a long and distinguished career – his US debut. Good things come to those who wait, and given the level of playing, one could have easily mistook conductor and orchestra as seasoned collaborators. Adding to the occasion was Jurowski’s participation in a pre-concert interview along with violin soloist Vadim Gluzman, both offering fascinating insights. Gluzman spoke of his cherished instrument, a 1690 Stradivarius formerly played by Leopold Auer, the original dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – this is to say, this is the instrument for which the composer envisioned his now ubiquitous concerto. In deference to the violin’s provenance, Gluzman remarked on his preference for Auer’s edition of the work. Jurowski fondly recalled his first exposure to The Cleveland Orchestra while the latter was on tour to Moscow in 1965 under Szell. This performance he called one of the “most powerful feelings from live music” he’d ever experienced, and was thus particularly keen to stand in front of them as conductor. He further reminisced about his personal friendship with Shostakovich, with whom he played piano duets!

Pre-concert interview, left to right: moderator Cicilia Yudha, Michail Jurowski, Vadim Gluzman

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is certainly a well-known quantity, yet violinist and conductor managed to forge a fresh interpretation. A gentle, untroubled lyricism opened the work, so much at odds with the composer’s tormented life. Gluzman’s instrument was particularly rich in the low register, something Tchaikovsky took advantage of when writing the work, emanating a songful, burnished tone in this music of endless, organic development, with one theme flowing out of the next. The orchestral climax was given with vigor and swagger, and in the cadenza, one was struck by Gluzman’s crystal clear intonation of the stratospherically high notes and thorough command of his storied instrument – joined by flutist Joshua Smith in a particularly affecting moment. A choir of winds – a notch too loud to my ears – opened the central Canzonetta, and the violin sang with an ineffable melancholy, quite a contrast from the breakneck dance of the finale. Gluzman encored with the sarabande from Bach’s Second Partita, given with stately introspection.

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony is patently programmatic, recounting the horrific events of Bloody Sunday in graphic detail. The events – occurring one year before the composer’s birth and witnessed firsthand by his father – entailed the mass murder of peaceful demonstrators by the tsarist regime on a fateful Sunday in January 1905. The symphony was completed in 1957, and Jurowski suggested it was inspired by the Hungarian Revolution of the year prior which had some clear parallels – in other words, ever the subversive, Shostakovich was using historical events to comment upon the present. The work opened with the eerie and chilling motionlessness of a St. Petersburg January, a calm before the storm, aspiring to the monumental stasis of a Bruckner symphony. A plethora of folk songs in support of the revolutionary program was integral to the fabric of the work, first appearing in the brilliant trumpet of Michael Sachs.

A jarring contrast was had in the following movement, structurally serving as a scherzo but miles removed from a light-hearted affair. Matters seemed to crest to apparent triumph, only to devolve into music of shattering, shocking violence, with the snare depicting gunshots in gruesome recount, leading to a grinding fugue in the low strings of blistering contrapuntal ferocity. What followed was music of a broken world, never the same, this being the beginning of the end for the tsarists, and ghostly sounds of the celesta and muted trumpet finally brought matters to an inconclusive close. The third movement, titled “Eternal Memory”, was mourning of deepest lamentation. The strings initiated, followed ominously by the low brass. Matters burgeoned to an impassioned outcry, but in due course retreated to the somber beginnings. The closing “Tocsin” (“Alarm” – fittingly at this point a siren was heard from a passing emergency vehicle outside) jolted matters out of the shadows, startling in intensity. A march of relentless vigor proceeded, toppling over into a reminiscence of the quietude of the work’s distant opening, heightened by a plaintive English horn solo from Robert Walters. The coda added bells to the texture, material as impressive and blood rushing as anything Shostakovich wrote, yet after such bombast, Jurowski held the audience suspended in shocking silence.

US premiere of Deutsch’s Okeanos makes strong impression

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Paul Jacobs, organ
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 14, 2019

Haydn: Symphony No. 34 in D minor, Hob. I:34
Deutsch: Okeanos
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Prior to The Cleveland Orchestra’s impending and extensive tour of China, Franz Welser-Möst is back in town for a pair of programs, the first of which was centered on Cleveland’s introduction to the tenth Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, Bernd Richard Deutsch. Also hailing from Welser-Möst’s native Austria, Deutsch is representative of what is sometimes referred to as the Third Viennese School, a loose amalgamation of composers whose music has been championed by the contemporary music ensemble Klangforum Wien.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Paul Jacobs in Okeanos. Photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The work Deutsch made his calling card was Okeanos, a nearly 30-minute canvas for organ and orchestra dating from 2014-15, and inspired by the titular Greek personification of the oceans. Prefacing the performance, Deutsch and organist Paul Jacobs were on hand for a fascinating preconcert discussion (although I did wish that moderator Caroline Oltmanns had been gracious enough to give the two more airtime). Okeanos is conceived in four movements, each representing the fundamental elements, respectively, water, air, earth, and fire. The work began almost indeterminately, with tremolos obscuring fragments of themes, and the organ so wrapped into the fabric of the orchestra as to be hardly discernible. The movement soon grew far more animated, building to a fluid gravitas, with the organ powerfully prominent in music of cosmic visceral impact – yet the movement ended in no more than a whisper.

“Air” opened with rapid fluttering in the organ along with a wind machine used to obvious effect. Colorful glissandi on the organ were imitated by the harp and celesta. “Earth” was a more glacial affair, filled with otherworldly timbres usually emanating from the percussion battery, as vast and diverse as one could imagine. “Fire” was of rapid virtuosity and quite ferocious playing, emphasizing the rhythmic primacy of the percussion. Further striking effects were achieved through muted trombones; at movement’s end the texture dug down into the depths of the organ, ending on a sustained chord at quadruple forte – an imposing effect to be sure. Deutsch noted that the structure of the work was determined by the golden ratio – a thought-provoking compositional approach with antecedents in Debussy and elsewhere, though certainly not apparent on first hearing. As part of his fellowship, Deutsch has been commissioned to write a new work for the orchestra, to be performed at the end of next season (May 2020) – I look forward to music that lies ahead.

The evening began with the first Cleveland Orchestra performances of a lesser-known Haydn symphony, No. 34 in D minor. The first of the composer’s to be cast in the minor, it served as an incubator for the series of Sturm und Drang symphonies that would soon follow. Haydn quite surprisingly begins with the slow movement – what initially sounds like merely an introduction turns out to be a symphonic edifice nearly as long as the remaining movements combined. A lament in the strings was marked by the clarity of the inner voices in this statement of genuine expressive depth. After the weighty beginnings, the minor was all but forgotten and matters proceeded wholly unperturbed. The sudden high spirits of the second movement were further encouraged by the courtly minuet with lovely woodwind triplets during its trio. And as is often the case with Haydn’s whirlwind finales, one only wished it wasn’t so brief.

Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Fifth Symphony completed the program in lush Romanticism. A plaintive presentation of the fate motive in the clarinets opened the work to chilling effect, eventually coalescing as an energetic march, gathering great strength in the face of fate and brimming with endlessly flowing melody. Welser-Möst took matters at a startlingly brisk tempo – while I applaud his resolve to not sentimentalize, I would have preferred the music to breathe a bit more. Low strings of deep emotion marked the slow movement, a backdrop for the sumptuous horn solo, delicately interjected by Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet. While Welser-Möst might not have probed as deep as some, the result was nonetheless long, flowing lines of rapturous beauty. The tragic obsessions of the first two movements were left behind in the lilting Valse, decorated by mercurial strings. The fate motive resurfaced, suddenly benign, setting the stage for the finale wherein matters were miraculously morphed to the triumphant.

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The Cleveland Orchestra performs Okeanos. Note the percussion battery and muted brass.

Apollo’s Fire in lively Vivaldi concertos – and a tribute to a deceased canary

Apollo’s Fire
Jeannette Sorrell, conductor
Jeffrey Strauss, baritone
Kathie Stewart, traverso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Cleveland Heights, OH
March 8, 2019

Vivaldi: Concerto in D for Two Violins, Two Cellos, and Strings, RV 564
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
Vivaldi: Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins, RV 580 (from L’estro armonico, Op. 3)
Telemann: Funeral Cantata for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird, TWV 20:37
Vivaldi: Flute Concerto in D, Il gardellino, RV 428 (from Six Flute Concertos, Op. 10)
Vivaldi/Sorrell: La Folia, after Trio Sonata in D minor, RV 63 (from Twelve Trio Sonatas, Op. 1)

Branded as “Three Duels and a Funeral”, Apollo’s Fire (fresh off their win at the Grammys) offered a generous program comprised of a trio of Vivaldi concertos along with a funereal oddity by Telemann, fleshed out with additional music by Bach and more Vivaldi. The first “duel” presented was Vivaldi’s Concerto in D for Two Violins, Two Cellos, and Strings. Despite the evening’s moniker, these concertos were rather congenial affairs as far as duels are concerned, with the opening work particularly affecting in its consonant combination of soloists on both ends of the string spectrum (violinists Johanna Novom and Adriane Post, cellists René Schiffer and Rebecca Landell Reed), further encouraged by the crisp cohesiveness of the supporting ensemble. Novom led the central Largo with beautifully singing lines which Post duly imitated, while rapid fire playing amongst the four soloists made for a rousing finale.

Jeffrey Strauss and Apollo’s Fire in Telemann’s Canary Cantata, photo credit Apollo’s Fire

In her spoken introduction, Jeannette Sorrell referred to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 as the “most democratic piece in classical music”, owing to its equal treatment of all nine players. Matters were propelled forward with joyous energy, only to arrive at a harmonic stasis in the slow movement of only two chords, wherein Sorrell’s continuo acted as a ghostly recitative. The work closed with a driving theme, vigorously passed from instrument to another. Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for Four Violins saw Novom and Post resume soloist duties along with Susanna Perry Gilmore and Carrie Krause. One was quite taken intricate interplay amongst the quartet during this comparatively sober work, not in the least during a striking moment when the orchestral accompaniment all but dropped out of the fold.

The evening’s centerpiece was a work of remarkable musical eccentricity, namely Telemann’s Funeral Cantata for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird. Written at the behest of a Hamburg patron whose pet canary fell victim to a hungry feline, the Canary Cantata retells just that over the course of its 17-minute duration, ultimately an ingenious blend of tragedy and comedy. Handling the vocal line (originally in German, presented here in Sorrell’s English translation) with verve and aplomb was baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who further brought the text to life via some choice props and acting under the direction of Christine McBurney – judiciously used to add comedy without gimmick. As detailed in an interview with Cleveland Classical, Strauss’ vitality was all the more laudable given his recent recovery from major heart surgery. Sighing strings opened the work in this music of very fine quality, such that it could easily be mistaken for that of a rather more serious subject matter. The aria “My dear Canary, sleep well tonight!” was genuinely moving, a lovely tribute to the protagonist’s avian friend. A genuine curiosity, expertly performed, and perhaps an inspiration for Alkan’s equally perplexing and similarly themed Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Papagallo from almost a century later.

This ornithological thread was continued in one further Vivaldi concerto, the Flute Concerto in D bearing the nickname “Il gardellino” (The Goldfinch). Principal flute Kathie Stewart delivered an obvious invocation of birdcalls in her limber and fluid playing, and a charming cantabile led to the fluttering finale. Vivaldi’s rendering of La Folia has become one of AF’s signature pieces; originally a trio sonata, the evening closed with Sorrell’s arrangement, recomposed as a concerto grosso. A commanding reading of the canonical chord progression gave way to a breathless tour de force, with some good-natured dueling between violinists Alan Choo and Emi Tanabe emblematic of the ensemble’s blistering virtuosity.

Roth makes Cleveland Orchestra debut in brilliant Parisian program

Cleveland Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth, conductor
Javier Perianes, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 28, 2019

Debussy: Rêve, from Première Suite d’Orchestre (orch. Manoury)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
 Encore:
 Falla: Danza ritual del fuego, from El amor brujo
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947 version)

An unexpected artist cancellation had the ancillary effect of morphing François-Xavier Roth’ Cleveland Orchestra debut program into a decidedly Parisian affair. Due to illness, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja was obliged to cancel her scheduled performance of Peter Eötvös’ Seven, a violin concerto written in memoriam the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia – hopefully a work which can be programmed again in a future season. Spanish pianist Javier Perianes was on hand for the Ravel piano concerto instead, neatly complemented by works of Debussy and Stravinsky. The program change did little to derail Roth’s auspicious debut, a colorful portrait of Parisian musical life as the 19th-century gave way to the twentieth, and something of a pendant to Ingo Metzmacher’s program earlier in the season comprised of works of the same time period from Vienna.

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François-Xavier Roth, photo credit Holger Talinski

Debussy catalogues had long indicated the existence of a Première Suite d’Orchestre dating from his student days, but it was assumed to be lost until as recently as 2008 when the score surfaced in New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library. Two extant versions of the four-movement suite were unearthed: a version for two pianos and a full orchestral score. The latter, however, was missing the third movement (Rêve) which was in due course orchestrated from the piano version by Philippe Manoury. While one might have wished for the entire suite to be performed, Rêve made for a fine opening selection as a standalone work. String tremolos and bubbling winds showed the present piece to be a clear precursor to La mer despite its youthful ambitions, with a lyrical theme (especially prominent in the oboe) taking its cue from the Romanticism of Debussy’s predecessors. An attractive piece – and a US premiere – with orchestration remarkably faithful to Debussy’s palette.

Credit is due to the orchestra administration to booking a first-class substitute in Perianes at short notice. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major was a vehicle well-suited to the pianist and a welcome addition to the evening (and parenthetically, Ravel’s other piano concerto, for left hand alone, was performed here almost exactly a year ago). Its striking whip crack opening was answered by a prominent piccolo, glittering glissandi on the keyboard, and ebullient trumpet, giving way to a bluesy, quasi-improvisatory theme in the piano. A wondrous texture from the harp led to the cadenza, bringing Perianes’ formidable technique in the spotlight. The Adagio assai opened sans orchestra, a heart-wrenchingly beautiful nocturne somewhat reminiscent of Satie’s Gymnopédies, made all the more affecting by the pianist’s lyrical phrasing and touch. A lovely flute passage ushered in the rest of the orchestra. Matters grew more impassioned, only to recede to delicate filigree in the piano in dialogue with the English horn. The finale was a wild toccata of bright colors and bursts of jazz, inevitably leading to demands for an encore. Perianes obliged in a solo transcription of Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, with a slithery main theme growing to staggering virtuosity.

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Javier Perianes, photo credit Igor Studio

Stravinsky’s Petrushka, written for the Paris-based Ballets Russes in 1911, was presented in its 1947 revision which refined and clarified the orchestration. “The Shrovetide Fair” was awash with color, immediately pulling the audience in to a bustling street scene, with busy fragments of themes quickly shifting focus from one character to the next. The vigorous “Russian Dance” was a further highpoint, later reoccurring prominently in the piano. Piquant bitonalities, first appearing in the clarinets, displayed in no uncertain terms the conflicted duality of the titular puppet, while a fine trumpet solo from Michael Sachs offered some impish, folksy charm. The final scene returned to the opening fair at evening with textures even denser than as before. Shrill clarinets added to the dizzying array of colors, ominously predicting the puppet’s eventual death with the bitonal theme having the last word – now distant and disembodied, as if the post-mortem puppet was in ghostly dialogue with himself.

Ohlsson brings Busoni behemoth back to Cleveland

Cleveland Orchestra
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 7, 2019

Haydn: Symphony No. 100 in G major, Hob. I:100, Military
Busoni: Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39

This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts were anything but routine and truly one for the books, featuring a rarely-heard epic: Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto, an Olympian creation spanning the continuum of over 70 minutes, cast in five movements with the last including a male chorus. At the podium was former assistant conductor Alan Gilbert in his only stateside appearances this season. Before plunging into the unforgiving waters of the Busoni, the orchestra offered a delectable amuse-bouche in Haydn’s “Military” symphony.

A graceful classicism imbued the quintessentially Haydnesque slow introduction, with deftly ornamented strings. The movement proper was given with joie de vivre, though Gilbert didn’t shy away from giving matters ample gravitas where necessary: while seemingly a trifle in the wake of the Busoni, it proved to be far more than a mere featherweight. The Allegretto began unassumingly with some particularly lovely playing in the winds, while a boisterous splash of color against the pearly white classicism was achieved through the sudden introduction of cymbals, triangle, and bass drum, earning this symphony its moniker. Thought of as “Turkish” sounds with the Austro-Turkish War being in recent memory, these instruments were used to similar effect by Mozart and Beethoven; the present work’s martial feeling was further enhanced by a series of bugle calls. By comparison, the ensuing minuet was decidedly Old World, with a trio of simple charm. The finale was of frenetic energy and included a brief return of the colorful percussion.

There’s some historical context necessary in appreciating the magnitude of the Busoni performance. An absolute marathon for the soloist, it makes superhuman technical demands virtually without respite, and thus only a handful of pianists have the stamina to approach such a work. The Cleveland Orchestra first traversed the concerto in 1966 with Italian pianist Pietro Scarpini and George Szell conducting (an archive recording can be heard here), and the Cleveland performances were followed by a tour date in New York. In the audience of the Carnegie Hall performance was an eighteen-year-old Garrick Ohlsson who later that year would win the Busoni International Piano Competition. Fast-forward to 1989, and Ohlsson was the soloist in TCO’s next encounter with the work, this time under the baton of Christoph von Dohnányi. A New York performance again took place (along with Boston), as well as a recording session, the fruits of which continue to serve as a benchmark. This weekend’s two performances thus commemorated a remarkable anniversary, with Ohlsson, now 70, returning to the keyboard almost 30 years to the day of the recording (February 4, 1989).

Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. Garrick Ohlsson and Alan Gilbert, center.

The opening Prologo for orchestra alone initiated matters with lush, hyper-Romantic strings; though written in 1904 the work’s musical language was firmly rooted in the previous century, predating Busoni’s more astringent modernism. Winds and brass were introduced in stately fashion, with the piano’s entrance at the Introito being one of commanding chords thunderously traversing the keyboard. Rarely will one hear a Steinway played with such leonine power, with Ohlsson’s effusions sailing above the orchestra and through the depths of the hall – and impressively, he had the whole score committed to memory. While generally a movement of solemnity, there were occasional hints of the composer’s Italian heritage, of central importance in the work’s even-numbered movements. The following Pezzo giocoso was just that, beginning with rapid, fantastical material leading to a dizzying folk theme. It’s a movement that for me brings to mind the analogous one from Brahms’ second piano concerto, it too being a work of enormous weight, and like Brahms, Busoni’s piano writing is often subsumed into the dense texture of the orchestra when not front and center. Afendi Yusuf offered a languorous clarinet passage, and the folk theme appeared again in the piano atop rumbling tremolos in the bass. Boisterous as the movement was, it faded away in resolution.

The central Pezzo serioso is the heart of the work, its twenty minutes further divided into three sections with an introduction preceding. The low strings emanated a somber, looming darkness, as well as a contrapuntal severity that evidenced the specter of Bach, Busoni’s greatest idol. The piano floated above the strings, almost as a nocturne, and a solemn brass chorale also found an answer from the keyboard. Powerful rolling chords marked the Prima pars, while the extensive Altera pars erupted into a storm worthy of Mahler. Indeed, had Mahler written a piano concerto, this all-encompassing vision of Busoni leaves a clue to what perhaps could have been. The bright Italian sun broke through in the penultimate movement, All’Italiana, with bubbling winds further colored by tambourine. The wild tarantella was given with a joyous abandon, almost boiling over to a breaking point before the massive cadenza, with Ohlsson not flagging in intensity even an hour in.

The concluding Cantico brought forth the men’s chorus who rose to their feet at the cadenza’s conclusion (although it should be noted that Busoni desired for the chorus to not be visible to the audience). The notion of including a chorus within a piano concerto certainly contravenes convention, save for a few odd precedents – most notably, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, as well as all but forgotten examples from Daniel Steibelt and Henri Herz. In scoring for male voices, one also suspects Busoni looked towards the finale of Liszt’s Faust Symphony as a guiding light. A mystical atmosphere pervaded the movement’s beginnings to set the stage for the monastic entry of the chorus, at which point Ohlsson was afforded a well-earned relief, albeit brief. The six-part choral writing yielded some striking harmonies, in the service of a text by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger rendered in German. Excerpted from the poet’s “Aladdin”, the text in question is a hymn to Allah, yet much like Mahler’s texts of religious inspiration, it transcends one particular ethos. Upon conclusion of the text, the piano and full orchestra were rallied once again for the coda, magnificent and triumphant. A remarkable achievement, not to be soon forgotten.

Apollo’s Fire violinists shed light on Biber’s Mystery Sonatas

Musicians from Apollo’s Fire:
Johanna Novom, violin
Adriane Post, violin
Karina Schmitz, violin
Carrie Krause, violin
William Simms, theorbo
Brian Kay, lute and guitar
René Schiffer, cello
Jeffrey Grossman, organ and harpsichord

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Cleveland Heights, OH
February 2, 2019

Biber: Selections from Sonatas on the Mysteries of the Rosary – 

Sonata No. 1 in D minor, The Annunciation
Sonata No. 4 in D minor, The Presentation of Jesus
Bach: Prelude in C minor, BWV 999
Sonata No. 6 in C minor, The Agony in the Garden
Sonata No. 7 in F major, The Scourging at the Pillar
Sonata No. 10 in G minor, The Crucifixion
Bach: Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 – Sarabande
Johann Kerll: Toccata No. 8 in G major
Sonata No. 11 in G major, The Resurrection
Sonata No. 12 in C major, The Ascension
David Kellner: Campanella in D major
Sonata No. 14 in D major, The Assumption of Our Lady
Kaspar Förster: Motet in G minor, Dulcis amor Jesu

One of the most perplexing and endlessly fascinating instrumental works of the Baroque, Heinrich Biber’s Sonatas on the Mysteries of the Rosary (variously know as simply the Mystery Sonatas or Rosary Sonatas) served as the focus of this weekend’s Apollo’s Fire concerts. The complete cycle consists of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo followed by a passacaglia for violin unaccompanied. Each of the fifteen sonatas evokes a scene from the Catholic Rosary, further divided into three sets of five, respectively, the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries. Despite the moniker of sonata, each embody a markedly unique structure from one another, and most remarkably, employ a different tuning through extensive use of scordatura. Only the opening sonata and closing passacaglia are scored for standard tuning, adding to the technical – and logistical – challenges of performing the work.

biber_mysterien
Tuning for Sonata No. 11, photo credit Wikipedia

Eight of the fifteen sonatas were programmed, with four violinists each responsible for two. The instrumentation for the continuo is open to interpretation; the present performances opted for theorbo, lute, cello, keyboard, and various combinations thereof. Sonata No. 1 (“The Annunciation”) featured associate concertmaster Adriane Post. Beginning contemplative and rhapsodic, its centerpiece was a graceful aria which lent itself to elegant variations. Karina Schmitz offered sweeping power and a wide-ranging color palette to No. 4 (“The Presentation of Jesus”), a single-movement chaconne. At various intervals, solo works by other composers were offered as “meditations”, affording each of the continuo players a moment in the spotlight. The first such was lutenist Brian Kay in a prelude by Bach, a meditative work of understatement to which Kay offered deft control of the contrapuntal voices.

Co-concertmaster Johanna Novom was soloist in the dark No. 6 (“The Agony in the Garden”), digging into the depths of her instrument in this lament. No. 7, given by Carrie Krause, began with an unassuming allemande in congenial counterpoint with the organ, almost defiantly peaceful given its subject matter (“The Scourging at the Pillar”). A sarabande followed with dramatic flourishes – rather uncharacteristic of the form – and a striking central section wherein motion was all but suspended. Post offered a gripping reading of No. 10 (“The Crucifixion”), with the sharp snap of dotted rhythms eerily suggested the nails going in; a set of variations followed, impressive for the rapid passagework. Cellist René Schiffer closed the first half with a Bach sarabande, stately in its directness.

To open the final section – The Glorious Mysteries – was keyboardist Jeffrey Grossman (who was also on hand for an informative pre-concert lecture) in the Toccata No. 8 by Johann Kerll – a work of bright and brilliant virtuosity that presaged the light to come. Sonata No. 11 (“The Resurrection”) brought back Novom, and featured perhaps the most striking tuning of all – two Gs an octave apart, and two Ds also spaced by an octave, with the two middle strings forming a cross over the bridge for obvious symbolism (see picture above). The heart of the sonata was a chorale of resonant richness, at one point presented in octaves, readily achieved via the aforementioned tuning. Krause gave No. 12 (“The Ascension”) a commanding Intrada, contrasted by the joyful dance suite followed. William Simms presented David Kellner’s Campanella on the lute, a piece of perpetual arpeggiated figures. Schmitz concluded the Biber offerings with No. 14 (“The Assumption of Our Lady”), a rollicking final selection, especially in the concluding gigue. As a pendant to the Biber, the eight musicians at last joined forces simultaneously in an instrumental arrangement of a motet by Kaspar Förster – a moving blend of pathos and joy.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra score another operatic success in Ariadne auf Naxos

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 13, 2019

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60

Tamara Wilson, soprano (Ariadne/Diva)
Andreas Schager, tenor (Bacchus/Tenor)
Daniela Fally, soprano (Zerbinetta)
Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano (Composer)
Wolfgang Brendel, speaking role (Major-Domo)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone (Music Master)
Jonas Hacker, tenor (Dance Master)
Julie Mathevet, soprano (Naiad)
Daryl Freedman, mezzo-soprano (Dryad)
Ying Fang, soprano (Echo)
Ludwig Mittelhammer, baritone (Harlequin)
James Kryshak, tenor (Scaramuccio)
Anthony Schneider, bass (Trufffaldino)
Miles Mykkanen, tenor (Brighella)

Frederic Wake-Walker, director
Alexander V. Nichols, lighting, projection, and set design
Dominic Robertson & Lottie Bowater, collage, animation, and video content design
Jason Southgate, costume design
Mallory Pace, hair and makeup design

In what has become an essential part of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Severance Hall season, music director Franz Welser-Möst led his ensemble in a staged opera production, this season turning attention towards Richard Strauss in Ariadne auf Naxos. A wholly unique work in the operatic canon, Ariadne is preceded by a prologue wherein a cast of characters plan and prepare an evening’s musical program, debating whether it should be serious art or comedic entertainment, and what follows is the resultant product – effectively, an opera with an opera. The new production was designed by Frederic Wake-Walker, who made much of Severance’s small stage and deftly incorporated motifs of the hall into his design.

RICHARD STRAUSS - Ariadne auf Naxos
The ensemble of Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Welser-Möst eschewed the usual conductor entrance, with the prologue opening practically in medias res with conductor and orchestra in casual dress as perhaps in the middle of a rehearsal: the musicians thus became characters themselves. The instrumental introduction evidenced the finely-tuned Strauss playing of this ensemble. Strauss scored it for the rather modest force of about 35, although owing to the composer’s mastery of orchestration it often sounded as much more. While the scoring was thinner in the winds – particularly given what one might expect for Strauss – it was fleshed out by three keyboard instruments (piano, harmonium, celeste), and the clear textures allowed for the solos of the Cleveland principals to be rendered in sharper focus – notable were passages from the flute, clarinet, oboe, cello, and concertmaster Peter Otto.

As the Major Domo, Wolfgang Brendel was both imposing and avuncular in his spoken role (the character purportedly being tone deaf), explaining to the Composer that the latter’s opera would coincide with a performance by a comedy troupe, setting up the prologue’s central conflict. Dressed in the glam of a rock star, Kate Lindsey brought enormous vigor and defiance to the firebrand Composer, scored for mezzo to portray his youth, which involved an artistic idealism he hardly wanted to yield to comedians. As the Prima Donna (and slated to play title role in the Composer’s opera), soprano Tamara Wilson captured the essence of the stereotypical diva (and incidentally, Wilson is to reprise the role with Welser-Möst at La Scala later this season). When it was announced an inflexibly scheduled fireworks display would necessitate the opera and the comedy to be performed simultaneously, the singers and the comics exchanged ideas in a humorous mashup of the comical and the serious.

After the prologue’s minimalist staging, Severance Hall underwent a miraculous transformation to host the opera proper. The orchestra was lowered down to the pit, and a curtain draped around the stage’s perimeter served as a canvas for a nearly continuous stream of video projection. In adoration of the production’s venue, patterns reflective of the Severance ceiling were displayed on the curtain, and Ariadne’s dress would invoke the same pattern. While I was impressed with the production being truly made for Cleveland, perhaps the sight lines of the hall could have further been considered during design – particularly in the prologue, some of the action was obscured from my vantage point on the side of the balcony.

RICHARD STRAUSS - Ariadne auf Naxos
Daniela Fally (Zerbinetta) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Following another finely-played orchestral prelude, the celestial voices of the three nymphs were heard from above, reaching out to Wilson now refashioned as Ariadne. In a nod towards (somewhat) contemporaneous comedy, the comedians were costumed as the four Marx Brothers (is there any evidence that Strauss ever saw a Marx Brothers film?!). Additionally, clips from various comedies were projected, including scenes of Charlie Chaplin during the Harlequin’s aria, Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen. Ludwig Mittelhammer gave a deeply lyrical and affecting reading of the Harlequin, and during his excellent pre-concert lecture, Prof. Bryan Gilliam observed that the aria in question bears a more than passing resemblance to the first movement theme from Mozart’s piano sonata K331 – a composer who Strauss profoundly admired.

The second half’s centerpiece, Zerbinetta’s extensive Großmächtige Prinzessin, saw Daniela Fally – donning a flapper dress – shining brilliantly in this coloratura tour de force. The ensemble piece Töne, töne, süße Stimme, given by the nymphs in concert with Ariadne, was of sublime beauty as well as another musical homage – in this case, to Schubert (the Wiegenlied, D498). Tenor Andreas Schager entered as Bacchus, stretching to the extremities of his vocal range with great power but always lyrical first and foremost. A transcendent transformation occurred on stage with the darkened hall becoming filled with light as Ariadne gave thought to life with Bacchus outside her cave on the titular Naxos, perhaps alluding to the quest for enlightenment in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Bacchus and Ariadne closed with a duet of luscious lyricism: in the wake of the earlier debates of high art vs. populism, the sublime firmly had the final word.

RICHARD STRAUSS - Ariadne auf Naxos
Tamara Wilson (Ariadne) and Andreas Schager (Bacchus) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.