Jonathan Cohen, conductor
Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano
August 24, 2018
Handel: An Occasional Oratorio, HWV 62 – Overture
Haydn: Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major, Hob. XVIII/11
Mozart: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K183
This summer’s concluding offering at Severance Hall from The Cleveland Orchestra culled three masterworks from the 18th-century, compressing the tried-and-true overture-concerto-symphony program format to just over an hour. Making his Cleveland Orchestra debut was conductor Jonathan Cohen, a specialist in this repertoire of particular note as artistic director of the early music ensemble Arcangelo.
Jonathan Cohen, photo credit Marco Borggreve
Kristian Bezuidenhout, photo credit Marco Borggreve
The earliest work was presented first, namely the overture to Handel’s Occasional Oratorio in its first Cleveland Orchestra performance. Cohen led the reduced, almost chamber-sized orchestra in tight direction from the harpsichord, with the overture opening bold and stately, contoured by the dotted rhythms as per the French style. The small brass section added a sheen of brightness, and following the introductory material, matters took off via the fleet strings. Cast in four sections, the penultimate featured a lovely long-breathed oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein, and the work concluded in a brief but jubilant march.
Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major served as a platform for another local debut, that of South African keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout. The opening movement was lithe and sprightly, encouraged by Bezuidenhout’s crisp playing, direct in expression and always of utmost economy. The cadenza demonstrated his fine technique, but not without moments of introspection. In the slow movement, the sweet lyricism offered repose if not quite achieving the rapt beauty one would find in a Mozart concerto, and Hungarian finale recalled the composer’s dutiful service to the Esterházy family. Bursting with a folksy joviality, a vigorous theme in concert with the horns was of particular delight.
Mozart’s first minor key symphony – No. 25 in G minor – concluded the evening (incidentally, a few months prior TCO traversed Mozart’s only other minor key symphony, also in G minor). Opening in energetic Sturm und Drang, a looming darkness was assuaged by a singing oboe line and the buoyancy of the dance-like secondary subject. The delicate gestures of the Andante counted as calm following the storm, while the main theme of the ensuing minuet was sharply punctuated, contrasted by the mellifluous winds and brass of the trio – though here and elsewhere regrettably plagued by intonation issues. A nervous energy began the finale, its potential soon becoming kinetic to guide the work with inevitability to its ominous conclusion.
Stephen Hough, piano
Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse
New York, NY
August 10, 2018
Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque
Mozart: Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, K452
Poulenc: Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, FP 100
Poulenc, arr. Hough: No. 1 from Trois mouvements perpétuels, FP 14
Right on the heels of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s concluding performance of the summer season, one had a late-night opportunity to see pianist Stephen Hough in a much more intimate setting: a remarkable chamber music performance with the Imani Winds at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, part of the festival’s A Little Night Music series. Hough opened the program sans winds in a luminous, shimmering account of Debussy’s Clair de lune. Debussy is a composer to whom Hough has recently turned ample attention, releasing a very fine all-Debussy album at the beginning of the year (although one would need to look to his French Album for a recording of the present work). The acoustics in the Penthouse were a bit dry, but the striking setting of flickering candlelight and the Manhattan skyline made it a small price to pay, an atmospheric complement to the rapturous beauty of Hough’s pianism.
The remainder of the brief program was devoted to sterling examples of chamber works for piano and winds by Mozart and Poulenc. Hough noted that these disparate composers had little in common musically save for their wry sense of humor. A stately introduction opened the former’s Quintet (K452), giving way to a jaunty primary theme which beautifully melded Hough’s elegant keyboard playing with the graceful winds – a harmonious blend of diverse timbres. The Larghetto was sweet and dulcet in its delicate trills and ornaments, and an almost sinfully sumptuous melody was passed through the winds. The finale was a jovial affair yet in no apparent hurry with a lyrical subject at its core.
Poulenc’s Sextet, dating from the early 1930s, added the flute to the forces onstage. The commanding opening brought to life a scene bustling with coloristic contrasts and manic syncopations evoking American ragtime. A searching monologue in the bassoon (Monica Ellis) and impressionistic writing from the piano offered some introspection, only for the movement to conclude in a dramatic flourish. An underlying melancholy – perhaps another parallel to Mozart – was palpable in the central divertissement with some especially fine playing from oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. More frenzied contrast was manifest in due course, with a rambunctious and perky finale leading inexorably to a bright and brilliant end.
A lone encore continued the ensemble’s exploration of Poulenc, namely Hough’s own transcription for the sextet of the first of the Mouvements perpétuels (originally a work for solo piano). Hough was certainly apt in remarking it had “not a bit of angst”, and the seamless performance closed the evening in pure delight.
Bernard Labadie, conductor
Isabelle Faust, violin
February 15, 2018
Rigel: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 12 No. 4
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Kurtág: Doloroso, from Signs, Games and Messages
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550
Despite Thursday evening’s program containing two of the most popular works in the repertoire, matters began with a certified rarity, a little-known work by a little-known composer: the Symphony No. 4 in C minor of Henri-Joseph Rigel. German born but transplanted to Paris, he was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart with no less than fourteen symphonies to his name. The C minor work in question, published in a set of six that comprise the composer’s Op. 12, is one which this weekend’s conductor Bernard Labadie has championed for some time; I recall him including it on a Chicago Symphony program a few years back (reviewed by a colleague here).
Labadie imbued the opening with a nervous energy, a textbook example of Sturm und Drang, and the thematic material was sharply defined, given with an appropriate punch. The Teutonic fire was tempered by Gallic sensibilities during the central slow movement, a graceful, untroubled affair in the relative major, while the minor key intensity returned for the sprightly finale.
Bernard Labadie, photo credit Dario Acosta
Isabelle Faust, photo credit Felix Bröde
More familiar terrain was to be had in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto which brought forth soloist Isabelle Faust. Faust took flight over the orchestra with the haunting, almost mystical theme, a rich lyricism emanating from her 1704 Stradivarius. The rapid scalar passages demonstrated her sound and confident technique (it should be remembered that this concerto was written for the legendary virtuoso Ferdinand David), while she opted for a more burnished tone in the introspective moments. At the movement’s end came a dramatic coda, while an ordinary composer would have closed here, the endless innovation of Mendelssohn’s fertile mind called for a long-breathed note in the bassoon to serve as a seamless transition to the Andante, a sublime song without words.
Further transitional material connected the finale, passionately yearning before giving way to the movement proper, spirited and celebratory. Faust received an enthusiastic and certainly well-deserved ovation – she seemed genuinely moved by it – and treated the audience to a most imaginative encore choice in Kurtág’s Doloroso, atmospheric in its unnervingly barren texture.
One could reasonably trace the Rigel symphony as a distant forebear to Mozart’s incomparable Symphony No. 40 in G minor, it also being a work of searing intensity in the minor. Labadie elected to conduct the Mozart from memory, and the fact that he remained seated at a piano bench did little to detract from the energy he offered. The work began in a whisper, almost sotto voce, with germs of themes building to great pathos, occasionally alleviated by a more lyrical secondary theme. Labadie achieved deft balance of the instrumental voices, and one was grateful that Mozart later rescored the work to include the clarinet as the pair added a lovely and mellifluous contrast.
The Andante served as a respite with the downward cascades in the winds especially charming, while the irregular syncopations of the minuet were dynamically punctuated, countered by the gentler trio (a horn flub or two notwithstanding). The brisk finale was a whirlwind of orchestral effect, one moment in the minor, the next in a joyous major, and perhaps most impressive was the sophisticated fugato, executed with a crystal-clear precision.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Lorna McGhee, flute
November 5, 2017
Mozart: Overture to Idomeneo, K366
Mozart: Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major, K313/285c
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, Great
Last weekend’s program at the Pittsburgh Symphony underwent several iterations before taking its final form, and it was a testament to strength of the musicians on stage how polished the end result came across nonetheless. Christoph von Dohnányi was originally scheduled to conduct, but was forced to withdraw all of his autumn engagements (which were also to include appearances with the orchestras of New York, Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago) while still recovering from a fracture suffered earlier this year. Dohnányi’s program was slated to open with Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, but when PSO music director Manfred Honeck stepped in, the Bartók was dropped in favor of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra. All was well until harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen had the misfortune of a hand injury, and the program was altered one last time to a Mozart overture and flute concerto.
The overture to the opera seria Idomeneo boasted a stately, regal opening, but soon took some unexpected chromatic excursions. This brief but rousing selection was given with a grandeur and a high-energy workout by the PSO. The Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major brought PSO principal Lorna McGhee into the spotlight, a gifted soloist whom I have previously enjoyed hearing serve on occasion as guest principal at the Chicago Symphony (see here and here).
The opening Allegro maestoso was of pearly balance and clearly delineated proportions, while McGhee’s limber flute passages were a graceful addition, always with an elegant attention to phrasing, and the cadenza showed her at her acrobatic best. The central slow movement featured the unusual inclusion of a pair of orchestral flutes, and McGhee responded to her colleagues in kind with a gorgeous, long-breathed melody. As for the concluding rondo, playfulness and joviality abounded in Mozart at his sunniest, leading up to its unassuming tongue-in-cheek ending.
The one constant of the program otherwise in the aforementioned flux was Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, to make for a weighty second half. Now in his tenth season as music director, Honeck has cultivated a remarkable rapport with the musicians, and this was quite apparent in the way the moving parts of this daunting work came together so seamlessly. A spacious opening in the trombones served as a gentle call to attention, and a burst of energy inaugurated the movement proper. Honeck took matters at a brisk pace (with total performance time only just passing the 50-minute mark), and opted for a tauter structure in jettisoning the repeat of the exposition. The proportionally brief development was highlighted by fine solos from the principal winds, and in due course the trombones returned to herald a triumphant coda.
A sumptuous song without words made for a memorable slow movement, notable for the intensely lyrical solos in the oboe. Music of more urgency offered some contrast and initiated a gorgeous, flowing theme chiefly in the strings with guest concertmaster Alexi Kenney at the helm. There was breathless vigor in the scherzo, countered by a more songful trio, and the finale was yet another high-octane affair – while it began perhaps a notch too loud, this zealousness did little to detract from the symphony’s bold conclusion.
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.
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.
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Edward Gardner, conductor
Jeremy Denk, piano
David Geffen Hall
New York, NY
July 29, 2017
Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music, K477
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K545 – 2. Andante
Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485
A New York summer tradition for over half a century, the Mostly Mozart Festival is a paean to not only its eponymous composer, but as the name suggests, those who bore his influence. Saturday night’s program embodied just that with music of Mozart prefacing works by Beethoven and Schubert that exuded a quintessentially Mozartean classicism. At the podium was the probing English conductor Edward Gardner who opened the evening with a user-friendly introduction, explicating the connections between the selections on the program.
The only work from Mozart’s pen on the printed program was a certified rarity, namely the Masonic Funeral Music. In his remarks, Gardner noted the enlarged wind section – inclusive of basset horns and the contrabassoon – and humorously commented that this orchestration was perhaps well-suited to Tony Bennett. He then demonstrated the work’s striking interpolation of a Gregorian chant, aptly describing it as of an “astounding resonance.” Gardner’s reading was deftly balanced, exuding a funereal pathos that anticipated the Masonic passages in The Magic Flute, and made a case for more frequent hearings of this finely-crafted gem.
The heart of the program was Beethoven’s genial Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, which brought forth the charismatic soloist Jeremy Denk. Denk’s unaccompanied entrance was of a dreamy serenity, and bell-like clarity of tone. His fingers spun a wondrously flowing melodic line, and not at the expense of plumbing the intensity of the work’s more dramatic moments. Denk and Gardner were a somewhat unusual coupling; while the pianist was patently idiosyncratic, often looking out into the audience with closed eyes, and playing with a remarkable (perhaps too remarkable) flexibility, Gardner was much more straight-laced. In spite of the incongruity of their approaches, their results were largely inspired, and Gardner’s sensitive accompaniment was adroitly balanced with the piano.
Denk began the first movement’s cadenza unassumingly, only to soon fill the depths of the Geffen Hall with resound. Agitated strings opened the Andante con moto, in due course calmed by the beauty of Denk’s chordal passages. The jocular concluding rondo was elegant yet down to earth, pearly and effervescent even through the minor key episodes. Denk obliged the enthusiastic audience with an encore by – you guessed it – Mozart, the slow movement from the Piano Sonata in C major, K545, familiar to any young piano student. Under Denk’s hands, this was a study in poise and refinement.
While Schubert looked ahead to Romanticism in his tempestuous Fourth Symphony, the Fifth was quite to the contrary: a glance backwards towards his classical antecedents. The Festival Orchestra delivered the opening movement with a blended and homogeneous sound, opting for the repeat of the graceful exposition, and Gardner guided orchestra and audience alike through development’s exploration of distant keys with aplomb. Gorgeous tones seemed to pour from Gardner’s baton in the slow movement, highlighted by an especially fine flute solo from Jasmine Choi, who that evening treated concertgoers to a pre-concert recital with pianist Roman Rabinovich. A bit more fire was introduced in the minuet, though not without a certain joviality. The finale was taken at a brisk pace, a beaming Haydnesque wit tempered by Mozartean drama, a fitting way to close Schubert’s lovely tribute to his predecessors.
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
April 30, 2017
Mozart: Larghetto and Allegro in E-flat Major for Two Pianos
Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Pianos
Debussy: En blanc et noir
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Stravinsky: Madrid for Two Pianos from Four Studies for Orchestra (transc. Soulima Stravinsky)
Stravinsky: Circus Polka for Two Pianos (transc. Babin)
Stravinsky: Tango for Two Pianos (transc. Babin)
It is a rare opportunity indeed to see not one, but two of the world’s leading concert pianists on stage together. This was fortunately the case Sunday afternoon, when Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes stopped at Symphony Center as part of a 13-city tour of a bracing program that explored music for two pianos. Their partnership goes back a decade when they performed the two piano version of The Rite of Spring at the Risør Chamber Music Festival, where Andsnes served as artistic director. Not three weeks prior to the Chicago performance, the pair finally recorded the piece for Hyperion along with additional works of Stravinsky for the same medium also featured in the recital, and one is grateful this inspired collaboration has been preserved on disc given the pair’s absolutely electric chemistry.
The program opened unassumingly with Mozart’s Larghetto and Allegro in E flat major, with Andsnes taking the primo part in the whole of the first half. The Larghetto was graceful but not without shades of melancholy, as in the best of the Mozart’s slow movements. Cast in sonata form, the Allegro remained unfinished at the time of the composer’s death, and was presented in a completed version by Paul Badura-Skoda. The sprightly main theme evidenced the duo’s rapport from the start, in what was an energetic warmup for all that was to follow.
Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos is a substantial if neglected work from his neoclassical period, written for him and his son Soulima to play together, and one couldn’t have asked for better advocates in Andsnes and Hamelin. The first movement was of bold, sweeping gestures, delivered with a knife-edged acerbity. The delicate ornamentation in the ensuing “Notturno” gave it a mysterious charm, while contrasting sections were more march-like. Spiky dissonances characterized much of the “Quattro variazioni”, while the finale opened with a brief but declamatory prelude to set up an intricate fugue. The theme of the preceding variations was not heard until it was presented as the subject of the fugue – the composer had originally intended for the last two movements to be in reverse, but settled on the present ordering to give the work a more forceful ending. And a forceful ending it certainly had!
Written in 1915, Debussy’s En blanc et noir is very much a product of the First World War. The angular themes of the opening movement made for a striking visual effect with Andsnes and Hamelin perfectly in sync as a mirror image of each other. The somberness of wartime was particularly apparent in the central movement, which made dissonant allusions to the Lutheran chorale “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” to depict the German enemy. The final movement – which, perhaps significantly, was dedicated to Stravinsky – was fleet and mercurial, a stark departure in its apparent playfulness.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has been heard on the same stage innumerable times from the Chicago Symphony, but hearing it on two pianos was a refreshing and altogether different experience. It was in this version that the seminal work was first heard – an early performance involved the composer with Debussy: what a sight that must have been. The work is actually carefully written such that it can be performed on one piano, four hands, but the decision to split it across two pianos was a wise one, not just for obvious logistical concerns, but the resonance of two instruments along with two separate sets of pedals allowed for a much greater range of orchestral effect.
Hamelin commanded the primo from here to the end of the program, opening with the famous bassoon line. In spite of Hamelin’s attention to nuance, what’s striking in the bassoon sounded admittedly pedestrian on the piano. This was quickly allayed, however, as “The Augers of Spring” built to electrifying orchestral sonority and power. Despite the orchestral score not calling for piano (as Petrushka does, and quite prominently), the work sounded very natural pianistically. The memorable performance was by and large a steel-fingered assault with hurricane-like intensity, continuing unmitigated through the final, crashing flourish.
A rousing, well-deserved ovation brought the pair back for three encores, all by Stravinsky. “Madrid” appropriately had an irresistible Spanish tinge, with a hint of the jota. The “Circus Polka” (“we’ve prepared all these lovely things for you”, noted Hamelin in his introduction to the delight of the audience) was Stravinsky at his wittiest, replete with bitonalities (and perhaps an inspiration for Hamelin’s own “Circus Galop”). Lastly, the “Tango” was sultry, yet not without the composer’s unmistakable stamp. Thanks are due to both for being on hand for an engaging Q&A session following the concert, and their chemistry there was just as palpable as it was on stage.
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano
November 27, 2016
Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Cleveland Orchestra presented a sumptuous program anchored by seminal works of Mozart and Beethoven. After being heralded earlier this year as the New York Philharmonic’s music director-designate, all eyes have been on Jaap van Zweden. The program played on his strengths, and even the most familiar of repertoire sounded dynamic and anew under his probing guidance.
The afternoon began in somewhat less familiar territory with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, a work the orchestra has not performed since the 1970s. A triptych of succinct, interconnected movements, it encapsulates the composer’s pacifist leanings and is an important precursor to the watershed War Requiem. The opening Lacrymosa began quite strikingly in the timpani and piano, keyboardist Joela Jones providing an unrelenting, anxious ostinato. The oboe passages of principal Frank Rosenwein were strained and pained in a texture that built to surging brass climaxes in its ethos of despair.
Nervous flutes opened the Dies irae but the heart of the piece was in the concluding Requiem aeternam. While in lesser hands it can sound like a plodding passacaglia, under van Zweden’s baton it was peaceful and plaintive, building to an arching lyricism in serene resolution, worlds apart from the austerity of the opening.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 brought forth the remarkable young pianist Daniil Trifonov, who has an important connection to the city having studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The concerto opened in the airy textures of the strings, with a gesture as gentle as an exhale, and it was with that naturalness the music flowed. Trifonov’s entrance was unassuming and graceful, and he emphasized the work’s lyrical beauty and dramatic contrasts as per his propensity to the Romantic repertoire, though never in excess. The cadenza was fleet and deftly balanced, displaying Trifonov’s astonishing dexterity.
Cast in the relative key of F sharp minor, the slow movement was filled with longing, and the winds were almost decadent in the splendor of their singing lines. Trifonov would often glance heavenward as if seeking some divine inspiration, fitting for music this sublime. The sprightly rondo finale is inherently familiar to many Clevelanders, in its frequent appearances as theme music on WCLV. Although there were shades of darkness in its minor key episodes, the overall mood was of pure joie de vivre.
Perhaps the greatest interpretative challenge of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is making one of the most popular pieces in the literature sound anything but trite and clichéd. Van Zweden proved amply up to the challenge as was apparent right from the crispness of the arresting opening, in a first movement that was lean and taut. Its violent contrasts were emphasized, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as it seemingly could devolve into wild abandon at any moment, yet matters were always tightly controlled.
The slow movement began with some especially lovely tones in the cellos, and the interplay between the martial and lyrical themes was cleanly delineated. I was especially struck by the clarity of the third movement’s fugato section, the contrapuntal lines weaving in and out of the strings. The finale was an exuberant and joyous affair, and the noteworthy addition of the trombone and the piccolo heightened its sense of drama to bring the concert to a rousing close.