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!

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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.

Perlman delights in Lyric Opera recital

Itzhak Perlman, violin
Rohan De Silva, piano
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
April 23, 2017

Vivaldi: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo, Op. 2 No. 2, RV 31
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24, Spring
Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 73
Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major

Encores:
Kreisler: Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francœur
Tchaikovsky, transcribed Auer: Lensky’s Aria from Eugene Onegin
Wieniawski: Etude-Caprice in A minor, Op.18 No. 4
Williams: Theme from Schindler’s List
Brahms, transcribed Joachim: Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor
Franz Ries: Perpetuum mobile, from Suite No. 3 in G major, Op. 34

An Itzhak Perlman recital is always a major event, as evidenced by the near-capacity crowd he drew at the cavernous Civic Opera House.  With an opera season ending in March, the venue was certainly put to good use in an enjoyable afternoon from Perlman and long-time recital partner, the Sri Lankan pianist Rohan De Silva.  A stage set of classical pillars provided an elegant backdrop (the advantages of performing in an opera house), and video screens showing close-up views in real time flanked the stage, helping to create a sense of intimacy in a large hall.

Exclusive-press-shot-Itzhak-3253-new_by-Lisa-Marie-Mazzucco
Itzhak Perlman, photo credit Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Perlman arranged his program chronologically, beginning with the Sonata in A major for Violin and Continuo by Vivaldi.  An energetic presto opened, effectively serving as a warmup to the sprightly second movement.  The slow movement was brief but genuinely expressive, and a joyful finale rounded off this compact work of a mere seven minutes.

In an unannounced change from the printed program which suggested Beethoven’s first violin sonata (Op. 12 No. 1), Perlman elected for the more seasonally appropriate though well-worn Spring sonata (Op. 24).  It opened with a wonderfully bucolic grace, although Perlman’s intonation was regrettably suspect at times.  A languid Adagio molto espressivo followed with some especially lovely playing from De Silva.  The two closing movements both were marked by a delightful interplay between violin and piano, and an elegant melody heightened the finale.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 offered some Romantic fervor, with Perlman presenting them in the continuous, unbroken cycle that the composer intended, rather than three separate works.  I was struck by the rippling of the first and the fire of the last, yet in these works originally envisioned for cello or clarinet, they sounded somewhat timid on the violin, requiring more vigor to compensate than Perlman managed to muster.

Ravel’s relatively brief Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major was the only work programmed for the second half in what was surely a calculated move to allow ample time for encores.  Beginning with a single note line in the solo piano, the first movement was one of coloristic writing, pitting the violin and piano on more austere terms with one another than the previous works which favored conviviality.  Ravel’s own take on American musical traditions came to light in the second movement “Blues”, much like in the Piano Concerto of a few years later, replete with blue notes and slides.

Perlman played the accented pizzicatos with his bow hand and the others were plucked up on the fingerboard, but in the former one wished for a greater abrasiveness.  The last movement was acutely virtuosic, yet the delivery was rather dry and detached – but certainly not enough not to garner an enormous standing ovation, as much a recognition for Perlman’s extraordinary career as for Sunday afternoon’s performance.

And ample encores there were – no fewer than six.  While the four sonatas fared a bit lackluster, it was during the encores that the violinist truly sprung to life, and Perlman became Perlman.  With a charismatic stage presence, he explained to the audience that he brought with him a list of every work he’s played in Chicago – humorously suggesting it dated back to 1912 – so as to avoid duplication.  No Perlman recital would be complete without a work of Kreisler, and he offered the illustrious composer-violinist’s Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francœur, once erroneously thought to be a bona fide work of its namesake.  Perlman exuded an effortless charm in the Sicilienne; the Rigaudon proved that his remarkable prestidigitation is still very much intact.

“Lensky’s Aria” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin followed – quite appropriate as Lyric Opera presented the complete work on the same stage just a few months prior – in a transcription by the legendary Leopold Auer.  A work of rich melancholy, it proved to be surprisingly well-suited to the violin.  The Wieniawski Etude-Caprice in A minor came next; a signature work of Perlman, it never fails to impress.  This was only outdone by the Theme from Schindler’s List – one of John William’s finest film scores, it should be remembered that Perlman played in the original soundtrack.  His deeply moving performance had particular poignancy on Sunday given the proximity to Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Two briefer works brought the afternoon to an agreeable close: the searing passion of the first of Brahms’ rousing Hungarian Dances, and the dizzying acrobatics of Franz Ries’ Perpetuum mobile.

Perlman Lyric
Civic Opera House