Van Zweden, Trifonov, and the Cleveland Orchestra find fresh inspiration in Mozart and Beethoven

Cleveland Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
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.

Jaap van Zweden, photo credit Bert Hulselmans

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.

Daniil Trifonov

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.