Guerrero and Cleveland Orchestra serve sumptuous Tchaikovsky over Thanksgiving weekend

Cleveland Orchestra
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Paul Jacobs, organ
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 26, 2017

Copland: El Salón México
Paulus: Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra
 Encore:
 Bach: Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29 – Sinfonia (transc. Dupré)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, The Cleveland Orchestra presented a colorful program, each work fittingly rich and delectable as per the spirit of the holiday. On the podium was Costa Rican native Giancarlo Guerrero – currently music director of the Nashville Symphony, he is a familiar face to this orchestra having served as principal guest conductor of their Miami residency from 2011-16. The program opened with two attractive American works, serving as a lighter amuse-bouche before Tchaikovsky’s deeply tragic Fourth Symphony.

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Giancarlo Guerrero, photo credit Tony Matula

Copland’s El Salón México marked a turning point in his career as looked towards folk music for inspiration, a style with the immediacy and appeal that would make him a populist sensation. Its boisterous opening brought to life a kaleidoscopic Mexican street scene, and potpourri of dance hall folk themes followed in due course, but as refined through lens of the classically trained composer. The performance was especially commendable for the handling of the work’s rhythmic complexities, particularly in the piano and percussion.

Stephen Paulus is a composer with an important Cleveland connection, having written his Violin Concerto No. 3 for concertmaster William Preucil in 2012. He also has no less than four organ concertos to his name; the aptly titled Grand Concerto, dating from 2003, was his third entry in the medium. It proved to be a fine showpiece for Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs as well as a good cause for bringing the console of the remarkable Norton Memorial Organ front and center.

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Paul Jacobs, photo credit Shanghai Conservatory

In spite of the marking “Vivacious and Spirited”, the opening movement began mysteriously, grounded in the low strings and bottom registers of the organ. A duet was to be had between Jacobs and principal flute Joshua Smith, the latter’s instrument perhaps being the orchestral instrument most akin to the organ in that they both produce sound via a column of air traveling through a metallic cylinder. Matters became increasingly exuberant to live up to the composer’s indications, however, and the swashbuckling ending was nearly cinematic in its big-boned melodies.

Marked “Austere – foreboding”, the central movement was of great contrast to the opening, beginning in rigid stoicism, almost religious in discipline – it should be remembered the Paulus was an accomplished voice in the field of sacred music – and the movement built to a powerful chorale. “Jubilant” was a fitting description of the finale’s carnival-like atmosphere, replete with some dazzling footwork from Jacobs in the organ’s pedals. Jacobs indulged the audience with an encore, a wondrous account of the sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata BWV 29 in a transcription for organ. To my mind, more was said in those few minutes than in the entire duration of the Paulus concerto, enjoyable as it was.

Following intermission, Guerrero returned to conduct the main course from memory, namely Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor. The arresting opening in the brass, symbolizing fate, was so unforgiving as to suggest that the inevitability of one’s fate was already sealed. A nervous theme began the movement proper, and the principal winds were in in fine form during a section of downward cascades, a gentler moment in this movement of searing passion. The Andantino in modo di canzona began with a plaintive oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein, not as tragic as the preceding but still of deep melancholy, and the burnished tones of the cellos followed suit. A skittish pizzicato characterized the lighter scherzo, later countered by a Slavic folksong in the winds, played perhaps a bit too shrill. The powerhouse finale ramped up the decibels, only for the fate motive to make a fearsome return, rendering the exultant conclusion an unnervingly hollow victory.

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Severance Hall, Norton Memorial Organ front and center
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Ashkenazy and Ax in an inspired partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 3, 2017

Elgar: Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor, Op. 20
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
 Encore:
 Schumann: Des Abends, No. 1 from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op. 36

In the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert on home turf since returning from an extensive – and by all accounts, highly successful – European tour, the stage of Severance Hall boasted the distinguished presence of two of their most veteran collaborators. Serving as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor from 1987-94, Vladimir Ashkenazy made his first podium appearance in Cleveland since 2010. A pair of works by Elgar framed an early Beethoven piano concerto, the central work bringing forth the much-admired Emanuel Ax.

Vladimir Ashkenazy
Vladimir Ashkenazy, photo credit Keith Saunders

Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra is the work of burgeoning yet not fully formed talent, but as attractive as it is compact at just over ten minutes in duration. The lilting first movement sounded quite literally piacevole (“pleasant”) in the Cleveland strings, highlighted by a solo passage from concertmaster William Preucil. The songful Larghetto was the heart of the work, and a sure sign of all that was to come for the composer, while the brief finale recalled the opening in its return to triple meter to neatly bookend the work.

A gentle outlining of the tonic C major triad opened Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and grew in urgency to introduce Ax’s sparkling entry in the solo piano. Ax’s graceful playing flowed with an effortless charm, while there was much heightened drama in the development as Beethoven began to break away from Mozart’s model of the classical concerto, and the extended cadenza showed Ax as a fiery virtuoso. In the slow movement, one was immediately struck by the inclusion of the piano in the opening breaths, and this music of great beauty was further enhanced by the singing clarinets. At the other end of the spectrum was the jocular concluding rondo which bordered on the rambunctious. Ax responded to the warmly enthusiastic reception that followed with an deeply lyrical account of Schumann’s Des Abends (incidentally, a favorite encore of the pianist, having been his choice for the two previous concerto appearances of his I’ve seen – see here and here).

Emanuel Ax_by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax, photo credit Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Written only a few years after the Serenade, Elgar’s Enigma Variations show him at the height of his compositional powers, and was a work that ensured his enduring fame. The theme was presented not without a shroud of mystery – enigmatic indeed – while the first variation was a loving portrait of the composer’s wife, Alice. A variegated chromaticism made the second variation a more pedantic affair, while interjections from the bassoon gave the following a childlike, impish humor. A rich viola solo marked the Ysobel variation in a nod towards the titular violist, and its successor (“Troyte”) was boisterous and big-boned.

The famous “Nimrod” variation was predictably a highpoint, its lush textures building to a cathedral-like resound. Given his long association with several of the London orchestras, it seemed Ashkenazy was able to offer particularly keen insight into this quintessentially British music, “Nimrod” being perhaps the British equivalent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. In contrast, the “Dorabella” variation was featherlight and stammering. A wistful cello solo made for a somber tribute to Elgar’s cellist fried Basil Nevinson, and the penultimate variation featured a fine clarinet solo from Afendi Yusuf in an invocation of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The last variation was Elgar’s portrait of himself, grandiose, and with the self-assurance of a composer utterly convinced of his abilities (albeit a bit more modest than Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben). Surely a high mark of the banner centennial season, let us hope Ashkenazy’s next appearance does not entail another seven year wait!

Intimate Chopin and Liszt from Ádám György

Ádám György, piano
Rheinberger Chamber Hall
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 16, 2017

György: Improvisations on Hungarian folk songs, themes by Ádám György, and themes by Keith Jarrett
Chopin: Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1
Chopin: Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 6 No. 2
Chopin: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4
Liszt: Rigoletto Paraphrase, S434
Liszt: La campanella, No. 3 from Grandes études de Paganini, S141
Liszt: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots, No. 2 from Deux légendes, S175
Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31

Encore:
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor, S244/2

After seeing pianist Ádám György give a memorable performance of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor at the 2017 American Liszt Society Festival this past spring, I have been eager to hear him in a full length recital. The opportunity for just that came Monday evening when the pianist stopped in Cleveland as part of a brief US recital tour, culminating in a Carnegie Hall performance this Sunday – which, by no coincidence, falls on Liszt’s birthday. The venue of choice was the intimate Rheinberger Chamber Hall at Severance Hall, an ideal setting for recitals and chamber music.

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Ádám György, photo credit adamgyorgy.com

Introduced as a “diplomat for Hungarian culture abroad”, György boldly opened the program with one of his own compositions, a 20 minute set of improvisations on source material as disparate as Hungarian folk songs, themes by Keith Jarrett, and themes by the pianist himself. It began almost impressionistically, unfolding at a glacial pace and contrasting the extreme ends of the piano’s registers. The work favored a rhapsodic ebb and flow over a taut structural cohesion; while it may have consequently meandered at times, the juxtapositions of modal folk music and the jazz-inflected Jarrett melodies were given with a remarkable fluidity.

Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1 followed attacca, offered as something of a pendant to the improvisations. Though perhaps a jarring interpretative choice, György’s reading of the nocturne left little to be desired. An ineffable melancholy characterized the primary theme which led to a stately chordal procession, and the concluding agitato section bordered on the ecstatic. Eschewing the standard concert practice of punctuating selections with stage exits, György remained at the keyboard for the duration, presenting the program in an unbroken arc. A pair of Chopin’s mazurkas followed, both contrasting wistfulness with a folksy charm and rhythmic snap.

Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase is based on the famous quartet from the namesake Verdi opera, and under György’s hands the theme was presented with a delicate elegance, increasingly complex and ornamented. While one would have preferred a bit more clarity in some of the octave leaps and rapid scalar runs, the cascading octaves that concluded showed György’s virtuosity at its finest. La campanella was a tour de force of pianistic acrobatics, the repeated notes high in the treble sounding as bell-like as the title suggests. György sailed through the fearsome trills with apparent ease, and the work built to a thunderous coda. The final Liszt selection on the printed program was the second of the two Légendes, namely St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots. A work of deep religious introspection, the rocking waves depicted in the bass made this imposing piece the evening’s emotional climax.

György turned attention back to Chopin one final time in the Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, and this commanding performance was filled with passion and drama. The modest but enthusiastic audience was indulged with a substantial encore, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor, to end the evening on a quintessentially Hungarian note and in a blaze of pianistic brilliance.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra soar to tragic heights in Mahler’s Sixth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor, Tragic

The Cleveland Orchestra is pulling all the stops in opening their centennial season, with this week’s attention turned toward a monumental Mahler score in addition to Saturday night’s gala. Before the music began, Thursday’s performance saw the annual presentation of the Distinguished Service Award, this year given to Chair of the Board of Trustees Dennis W. LaBarre. Following that moment of celebration, Welser-Möst and the orchestra embarked on a journey through darkness with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, unique amongst the composer’s symphonic corpus in that it ends in unresolved tragedy.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
The opening movement was taken at a brisk tempo, and one could sense the immediate buildup of potential energy that would power the work’s unrelenting cataclysms. Terse, motivic cells yielded a pulsating march theme, punctuated by the shrillness of the winds. Another gesture was introduced that would recur throughout, namely the major triad collapsing into the minor, prescient of the tragic trajectory. Some contrast was to be had in the lushly flowing “Alma” theme, while the development offered a particularly striking moment with the celesta and offstage cowbells suggesting some distant, hallucinogenic dream of the Austrian countryside. Perhaps Mahler’s most classically-proportioned movement, the recapitulation brought to a triumphant close, though as was later evident, only deceptively so in this hollow victory.

There has long been contention regarding the ordering of the two inner movements. The critical edition places the scherzo ahead of the Andante, while Mahler changed his mind during rehearsals and opted to conduct the Andante first. Welser-Möst honored Mahler’s decision, not just with regards to the Sixth’s chronology, but in terms of tempo as well – as he remarked in the program notes, its 1906 premiere with the composer conducting spanned 77 minutes, and Thursday’s performance clocked in at that on the dot. The Andante is in the distant key of E flat major, a tritone apart from the A minor of the other movements, and indeed, it occupied a peaceful world far removed from the surrounding tumult. One was struck by the genial warmth of the clarinets, and in due course, gleaming solos in the cor anglais and horn.

The march theme from the first movement returned in the scherzo, this time mutated into the grotesque and exhibiting a manic energy. The percussion added a particular grimness, while the pair of trios provided some lighter moments, if only relatively speaking. Afendi Yusuf’s solo clarinet passages were filled with rhythmic swagger though perhaps a notch too loud, and answered by the uneasiness of the col legno strings. Otherworldly sounds in the celesta opened the finale, thus beginning the plunge into infinite darkness. A stentorian brass chorale of enormous power, again embodying the decay from major to minor, initiated the movement’s epic, monumental fight, albeit one that would ultimately end in futility. Moments with the apparent potential of victory were quickly snuffed out by the two crashing hammer blows, the second with even more finitude than the first, signifying the point of no return. Some tender moments in the oboe from Frank Rosenwein suggested the possibility of respite, but overtaken as if with inevitability by the hollow emptiness of the conclusion, an unmitigated tragedy after which Welser-Möst held the audience spellbound in reverential silence.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra – note the hammer in the back row, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Sublime Beethoven and primal Stravinsky from Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 28, 2017

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 (transc. for string orchestra by Welser-Möst)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Encore:
Wagner: Good Friday Spell, from Parsifal

After last weekend’s stellar revival performances of Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, this week the Cleveland Orchestra turned attention toward purely orchestral music in scores of Beethoven and Stravinsky – a work from late in the career of the former and early in that of the latter, both uniquely revolutionary and iconoclastic. A crown jewel of this season’s offerings is the upcoming cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor served as a generous prelude, presented in a lush transcription for string orchestra by Welser-Möst himself. During the preconcert conservation with him and executive director André Gremillet, the conductor noted that Beethoven’s ethos often resonates with the values on which the United States was founded, and with regards to the late quartets, that they are “half-symphonic”, thus making the expansion to a larger ensemble a logical realization of the composer’s vision.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Welser-Möst’s transcription was fastidiously faithful to Beethoven’s original, with the thoughtful addition of the basses adding weight where appropriate in doubling the cello line an octave below, and imposingly aligned in the back row – a positioning preferred by the Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble with which Welser-Möst is intimately familiar. The work’s nebulous, enigmatic opening gave way in due course to the heft of the movement proper, and for one accustomed to hearing it as a quartet, the sight and sound of so many players in precise unison was really quite astounding. The scherzo had the charm of a minuet, contrasted by a more rustic trio, its halcyon bliss interrupted by stormier interludes, bringing to mind the mercurial Schubert.

The heart of the quartet is surely the central and quite extensive “Heiliger Dankgesang”; its unassuming beginnings in the Lydian mode grew to a heartwrenchingly beautiful resound. A sprightly foil was to be found in the brief Alla marcia, effectively a bridge to the finale, with a solo passage at the end given to concertmaster William Preucil as a quasi-cadenza. The last movement was overflowing with nervous energy and angst, an affront to the string quartet’s classical origins and indeed an augur of Romanticism.

In the aforementioned preconcert talk, Welser-Möst touched upon his keenness to include watershed works in the orchestra’s centennial season, and The Rite of Spring certainly fits the bill (and the conductor noted that upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are in that pantheon as well). The impossibly high passage in the solo bassoon unleashed a performance of unrelenting virtuosity, from its cataclysmic, primal climaxes, to the strained moments of a world of sacrificial desolation, the latter particularly notable at the beginning of Part II. It was abundantly clear how deeply ingrained this music is in the orchestra’s DNA, having championed it for decades (think of their landmark 1969 recording with Boulez), yet I was struck by how Welser-Möst opted for crisp articulation and dry textures; while it boasted razor-sharp clarity, it lingered a step below the red-hot intensity other conductors might champion.

Nonetheless, the ovations that followed were richly deserved, and the audience was treated to a rarity: an encore on home turf. Welser-Möst introduced it as a “beautiful piece for a beautiful audience”, otherwise known as the “Good Friday Spell” from Wagner’s divine final opera, Parsifal. Newly-appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf had a shining moment in the spotlight – a sign of good things to come – and after the ferocity of the Stravinsky, the encore allowed the evening to conclude in peaceful radiance.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Mozart’s Requiem a rousing close to Summers@Severance

Cleveland Orchestra
Patrick Dupré Quigley, conductor

Lauren Snouffer, soprano
Emily Fons, mezzo-soprano
Steven Soph, tenor
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Blossom Festival Chorus
Robert Porco, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
August 18, 2017

Mozart: Requiem, K626

In a thrilling close to this season’s triptych of Summers@Severance offerings, the Cleveland Orchestra joined forces with the Blossom Festival Chorus and a quartet of vocal soloists in Mozart’s enigmatic final work, the incomparable Requiem (presented in the familiar completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr).  Making his podium debut was Patrick Dupré Quigley, founder and artistic director of the South Florida based choral ensemble Seraphic Fire, who collaborated with the Orchestra in last March’s memorable performance of Stravinsky’s Threni.  Not one to be restrained by the conventions of historical performance practice, Quigley opted for an orchestra and chorus expansive in number, what it may have lacked in authenticity it more than made up for in a rich tapestry of sound.

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Patrick Dupré Quigley

From the opening bars of the Introit, one was struck by the gripping intensity and seriousness of purpose, and the resonant tones of the pair of basset horns offered an early instrumental highlight, while Joela Jones’ organ gave matters an almost monastic quality. With graceful gestures, Quigley adroitly held all the moving parts in tight alignment, and soprano Lauren Snouffer provided and heaven-reaching solo passage.  The brief Kyrie was marked by an intricate fugato, with all voices deftly balanced and clearly delineated.

Ample fire and passion filled the Dies irae to open the extensive Sequence, and rapid execution was to be found in this technical tour de force.  The Tuba mirum constituted a further highpoint, with the heft of bass-baritone Dashon Burton in dialogue with the trombone, and the more strained quality of Steven Soph’s tenor offered effective contrast.  The full force of the chorus was rallied in the ensuing Rex tremendae, coming together in especially striking fashion on the word “majestatis”, a majestic moment indeed.  All four soloists had their due in the Recordare; in spite of the relatively youthful age of the quartet, they attained a balance and chemistry one would expect from a much more seasoned group.

A menacing vigor drove the Confutatis, with particular grit in the strings, only to be countered by the angelic voices of the female choir.  A resounding major closed the famous Lacrymosa, a glorious moment which could hardly have been anticipated by the innocent sighs with which it began.  The polish of the Blossom Festival Chorus (incidentally, a volunteer group) truly shone in the Offertory, and further in negotiating the counterpoint of “Osanna in excelsis” which concluded both the Sanctus and Benedictus.

Melancholy returned in the august Agnus Dei (this is, after all, a requiem), and the wistful introspection of the opening was invoked in the concluding Lux aeterna, surely the most inspired moment of Süssmayr’s completion.  Snouffer was effective in her final solo, and the weight of the chorus built to one last fugue.  A dramatic pause kept the audience spellbound before delivery of the concluding line, a memorable finish to a very successful summer season at Severance Hall.

Chamayou makes impressive Cleveland debut with Scriabin rarity

Cleveland Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Bertrand Chamayou, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 28, 2017

Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 20
Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97, Rhenish

After opening the Summers@Severance season with a bread-and-butter all-Beethoven program, the Cleveland Orchestra turned to less familiar repertoire for the second installment.  Two firsts for the orchestra were to be had in the opening selection of Scriabin’s youthful piano concerto: it was a vehicle for the Cleveland Orchestra debut of the French pianist Bertrand Chamayou, as well as the inaugural performance of the work in the ensemble’s century-long history.  At the podium was Susanna Mälkki, a dynamic podium presence who never fails to strike me in her attention to color and nuance (and parenthetically, this was right on the heels of her memorable performance I caught in Chicago last month).

Bertrand Chamayou (c) Marco Borggreve - Warner Classics 2
Bertrand Chamayou, photo credit Marco Borggreve

The Scriabin piano concerto is firmly in the grand Romantic tradition, in no way anticipatory of the revolutionary atonality the composer’s works would soon embrace.  That being said, it’s a relatively compact work, the three movements cumulatively clocking in at under a half hour, and tends towards restraint over bombast.  Opening with solo passages for the horn and clarinet, the wistful piano entrance piano entrance was unmistakably Chopinesque, displaying the influence of Scriabin’s muse at the time, and later countered by a more jestful theme.  Arching melodies swelled in the orchestra, Mälkki skillfully balancing the dense orchestration with the solo piano, and movement built to a grandiose conclusion.

The central movement was cast in variations, an unusual form for Scriabin.  Serene strings introduced the theme, while the first variation was marked by delicate filigree in the piano in dialogue with the clarinet.  More animated material was to be had in the following variation, evidencing Chamayou’s considerable technical arsenal, while the third variation – and heart of the movement – was a somber funeral march, grounded in the piano’s lowest registers.  A dramatic flourish in the piano opened the finale, Scriabin at his most extrovert.  This gave way to a deeply passionate melody, of the kind one could easily mistake for the composer’s fellow Moscow Conservatory student Rachmaninov, and a display of blistering virtuosity and rich orchestral texture continued unabated through the resounding final chord.

Schumann’s Rhenish symphony made for a fitting counterpart to the concerto.  The opening movement was majestic, the orchestral lines flowing together as one to bring to life the work’s namesake river, and it exuded the heroic potential of its key of E flat major, by no coincidence the same key as Beethoven’s Eroica.  Widely-spaced strings characterized the scherzo, as if gently gliding along the water, and a choir of gentle winds highlighted the slow movement, later contrasted by the lushness of the strings.  The crux of the symphony – and where Schumann breaks from his classical forebears – is in the penultimate movement, a stirring brass chorale, presaging the awe-inspiring solemnity of Bruckner (who was also quite fond of the movement in question’s marking of feierlich).  While not without some unfortunate flubs in the brass, the effect was nonetheless imposing; the finale, however, was of unfettered jubilation, offering spirited playfulness to counter the stoicism of the preceding.

Summers@Severance opens with hearty Beethoven

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 14, 2017

Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

As a respite from the sometimes problematic conditions of al fresco performances, the Cleveland Orchestra offers the opportunity to hear them indoors through the summer at Severance Hall (which, incidentally, was recently featured on CNN as one of the finest music venues in the US) in tandem with their usual Blossom residency.  Matters opened in auspicious form Friday evening, with music director Franz Welser-Möst leading an all-Beethoven program as a preview of sorts for the upcoming season’s Beethoven symphony cycle.

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Summer festivities at Severance Hall, photo credit Roger Mastroianni

The Egmont overture made for a dramatic opening, apparent from the sustained introductory chords which which given with a glowering intensity.  The principal winds were particular standouts when in dialogue with one another, and Welser-Möst had taut control of the work’s sonata form architecture.  A piece of unrelenting Sturm und Drang, it was only occasionally mitigated by brief forays in the major, hardly enough to hint at the work’s jubilant conclusion.

In similar fashion to the preceding, the Symphony No. 1 in C major boasted a deftly-shaped chordal introduction, but otherwise this sprightly early work was worlds apart.  The theme of the movement proper crept in unassumingly, and burst with the self-assurance of the young composer.  A secondary theme was very finely given in the oboe by Frank Rosenwein, and with the Austrian on the podium, the orchestra sounded like a proper Viennese ensemble.  The genteel slow movement oscillated back and forth between playing in unison and various instrumental combinations in counterpoint, while the vigorous abandon of the third movement was a bona fide scherzo in all but name.  The finale opened in a stately manner, echoing the symphony’s beginning, only to proceed in unabated high spirits.

Beethoven’s Fifth, that rather well-known quantity in the parallel minor of the First, rounded off the evening, for which the orchestra swelled to 19th-century proportions.  Welser-Möst’s tempo choice was brisk and exacting, and despite the familiarity of this territory one never felt he was merely coasting on autopilot.  Rosenwein’s solo passage in the development was a striking moment of stasis in a world otherwise defined by searing drama.  There was a wonderful, burnished richness of the strings in the slow movement, and the winds were of note in the variation that perhaps interpolates La Folia.

In the penultimate movement, granite blocks of singularity gave way to delicate string filigree, although a somewhat more conservative tempo choice in the latter perhaps would have yielded clearer articulation.  This led attacca to the brassy exultation of the finale.  Welser-Möst opted for minimal dynamic contrast, which had the interesting (and perhaps intended?) benefit of making the ghostly return of the gesture from the third movement all the more haunting.  That mood of course wasn’t maintained for long in this archetypal journey from darkness to light, and there was no ambiguity that we had firmly arrived at C major in the extensive coda.  This drew a rapturous ovation from the packed house, and if Friday was any indication, next season’s traversal of the nine symphonies promises to be enormously rewarding.

Hamelin explores the piano sonata in commanding Cleveland recital

Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Gartner Auditorium
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH
March 21, 2017

Haydn: Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 1
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Op. 2
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, Appassionata
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, Messe blanche
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35

Encore:
Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau, No. 1 from Images, Book I

Marc-André Hamelin has built much of his reputation on fearless exploration of the byways of the piano repertoire, and his recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art – presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition – was no exception, juxtaposing the familiar with the obscure.  All the works on the program bore the title “piano sonata”, although none adhered very closely to the standard model of the form, a true testament to the medium’s protean potential.  Hamelin delivered the program with his signature peerless technique, yet this was far from an evening of vapid virtuosity, but one of probing artistic discovery.

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Marc-André Hamelin, photo credit Rachel Papo
The survey of piano sonatas appropriately began with Haydn, in the two movement C major sonata, Hob. XVI:48.  Given Hamelin’s association with the fingerbusting works of the 19th– and 20th-century, Hamelin and Haydn might sound like an unnatural fit, but as he as shown in his extensive recordings of the composer’s sonatas for Hyperion, it’s an inspired coupling to be sure.  From the onset, the performance was marked by deftly nuanced articulation and crisp ornamentation.  There were sporadic moments when matters felt a bit heavy-handed which lesser pedaling perhaps could have ameliorated, but overall this was a study in precision, replete with minor key excursions that foreshadowed Beethoven, and the all too brief finale exuded joie de vivre.

Certified rarities followed, the first two piano sonatas of the Russian composer and pianist Samuil Feinberg.  His cycle of twelve piano sonatas is a remarkable achievement, unjustly neglected, and Hamelin is rumored to be recording them.  These two sonatas, in A major and minor respectively, were of a similar aesthetic, the consecutive opuses hardly demonstrating Feinberg’s eventual compositional developments (both dating from 1915; the final sonata dates from 1962), yet Hamelin presented them with a singular intensity and an unflinching commitment to this little-known music.

The First Sonata was of a brooding Romanticism, while the dense textures would have sounded murky in lesser hands, Hamelin achieved a lucid clarity of voices, and delineated a clear trajectory in spite of the composer’s tendency to meander.  A touchingly lyrical melody characterized the Second Sonata, and a highpoint came in its dramatically cascading climax.

Beethoven’s mighty Appassionata is a recent addition to Hamelin’s concert repertoire; I’ve been eager to hear his take on this durable work, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.  The opening movement built to massive climaxes that carefully avoided bombast.  There was much-needed repose in the slow movement, enhanced by the adroitly voiced chordal melody, while the finale had an unrelenting nervous energy in its breathless race to the tragic end, given at a dangerously brisk tempo.

One of Hamelin’s first recordings of his long and fruitful association with Hyperion was of the complete Scriabin piano sonatas; the arresting Seventh Sonata is a work that has been in his fingers for a very long time.  Explosive and mercurial, the sonata proceeded with inevitability towards the trilling, mystical ending, shrouded in enigma.

Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata concluded the program, and in the passionate first movement Hamelin drew out a fluid melody over an undulating accompaniment.  He eschewed the repeat of the exposition, although in this case I would suggest the repeat is a wise interpretative choice given the movement’s proportions.  There was a menacing determination in the scherzo, while its middle section was indulgent in sumptuous melody, quintessentially Chopinesque.

No empty sentimentality was to be had in the tragic heights of the famous funeral march, and Hamelin had a velvet touch in the contrasting lyrical section.  His utter and absolute command of the keyboard was on full display in the moto perpetuum finale, yet phrases were keenly shaped to make the sonata’s revolutionary ending more than mere volleys of notes.

Hamelin obliged the modest but enthusiastic audience with an encore in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, shimmering and liquescent.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra vivdly trace Stravinsky’s musical development

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Seraphic Fire
Patrick Dupré Quigley, artistic director
Margot Rood, soprano
Margaret Lias, mezzo-soprano
Steven Soph, tenor
Brian Giebler, tenor
James K. Bass, bass
Charles Wesley Evans, bass

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Robert Porco, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 18, 2017

Stravinsky: Feu d’artifice, Op. 4
Stravinsky: Apollo (1947 version)
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version)
Stravinsky: Threni

An all-Stravinsky program that doesn’t include a note of The Firebird¸ Petrushka, or The Rite of Spring – impossible you say?  Not for Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra who presented a thoughtful survey of Stravinsky’s output while managing to skirt the well-worn blockbusters.  Each of Stravinsky’s major stylistic periods were represented, and each work on the program was markedly different from the others, a testament to the composer’s remarkable versatility.  A video of Welser-Möst speaking about the program can be viewed here:

Feu d’artifice, dating from 1908, comes from Stravinsky’s so-called Russian period that would eventually produce his watershed ballet scores for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  The brief but brilliant work is certainly the vision of a youthful firebrand, scored for large orchestra with some particularly striking writing for the celesta.  While there was a sensuous contrasting theme, matters were largely big-boned and extrovert in this last vestige of Russian Romanticism.

Originally composed 1927-28, the ballet score Apollo (variously known by its French title Apollon musagète) was presented in its 1947 revision.  Conceived for strings alone, Apollo is a major product of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, both in terms of its language, elegant in its clarity and restraint, and its classical inspiration.  The untroubled “Prologue” showcased the beauty of the Cleveland strings, and the ensuing “Variation d’Apollon” featured graceful solo playing from concertmaster William Preucil.  A “Pas d’action” was characterized by long melodies well-suited to the strings which set up a series of variations depicting three of the Muses.  The “Pas de deux” was delicate and given with an ineffable charm, while the “Coda” offered contrast in its jaunty syncopations.  Matters were left in serenity by means of the concluding “Apothéose”, music of haunting stasis.

Apollo was suitably complemented by the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, also stemming from the neoclassical period, but earlier enough to offer some stylistic variety.  Dating from 1919-20, like the preceding, it was performed in its revised version (coincidentally, from 1947 as well, also the year that the ever-fastidious composer revised Petrushka).  The titular wind instruments were not restricted to just the woodwind family, but the broader category of aerophones; hence, the brass were included as well.  “Symphonies”, in its intentional plurality, invoked the term’s Greek origins (literally, “sounding together”), and in the work Stravinsky accordingly was keen to explore various combinations of instrumentation.

Opening with striking, piquant harmonies, the work mercilessly jettisoned sentimentality, demanding such razor-sharp precision that its tempo changes were in a carefully proportioned 1:1.5:2 ratio.  Under Welser-Möst’s taut direction, the desired effect was expertly achieved.  A rhythmically-driven section recalled perhaps the primacy of rhythm in The Rite of Spring, and in spite of its apparent callousness, the work closed in a poignant chorale, meant as a tombeau for the recently deceased Debussy.

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Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst, and Seraphic Fire in Stravinsky’s Threni
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The evening’s most intriguing discovery was the final work, the rarely performed Threni, in its belated Cleveland premiere.  Completed in 1958, it was the composer’s first completely serial foray, scored for full orchestra, chorus, and six vocal soloists.  This weekend’s sextet of soloists were from the acclaimed South Florida based choral group Seraphic Fire.  Subtitled “Lamentations of Jeremiah”, the 35-minute work sets text from the Old Testament in Vulgate Latin, punctuated by the chorus exclaiming a letter from the Hebrew alphabet which served as veritable signposts in this demanding score.  Also useful in such unfamiliar territory were the detailed and informative remarks Welser-Möst presented prior to commencing.

The religious discipline was conveyed in the work’s austerity; despite being cast for large orchestra, the textures were dominated by sparse, chamber-like combinations.  A brief introduction was given with declamatory seriousness by Margot Rood and Margaret Lias, soprano and mezzo-soprano respectively.  The first section of the work proper (“De Elegia Prima”) was marked by very fine playing from Michael Sachs on the bugle (flugelhorn), often in dialogue with tenor Brian Giebler, and the chorus commanded a wide dynamic range, from monastic whispers to cataclysmic climaxes.  “De Elegia Tertia” featured striking contributions from the booming bass of the aptly named James K. Bass, his delivery suggesting that of a monk.  Stravinsky was almost certainly influenced by Gesualdo; the sophisticated pointillist counterpoint of a Renaissance motet was cleanly negotiated by all, and the closing “De Elegia Quinta” brought forth a conclusion of solemn resolution.

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Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst, and Seraphic Fire in Stravinsky’s Threni
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra