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.

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Welser-Möst concludes autumn residency with a powerhouse Mahler 2

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2018

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

There’s no question about it: The Cleveland Orchestra’s 101st season has gotten off to a stellar start, with the weekend seeing the last of four diverse and weighty programs led by Welser-Möst before he leaves for engagements elsewhere, not to return until January’s performances of Ariadne auf Naxos. The program in question was devoted to Mahler, familiar territory for these forces, namely the imposing and ultimately glorious Second Symphony – a work not performed on this stage since 2007.

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Welser-Möst, Wong, Harvey, and Cooke (l-r) with Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus

A funeral march is integral to virtually all of Mahler’s symphonies, and the Second in fact begins with one – and a formidable one at that. Nervous tremolos opened, leading inexorably down to the grave in this ferocious outpouring, though interspersed with moments of repose in what made for starkly garish contrasts, with the latter particularly encouraged by the plaintive oboe of Frank Rosenwein. Tempos were brisk – perhaps a bit too much so for my taste – but the yield was music of arresting power, never to be sentimentalized. A stirring brass chorale suggested the venerable Dies irae, and the movement concluded in desolation via a final downward gesture, a fate sounding all but inescapable.

But of course Mahler’s arduous journey doesn’t end there, with the following Andante moderato a folksy foil, as if the struggles immediately preceding had been entirely forgotten in this carefree ländler. A much less tightly-wound tempo achieved a simple, rustic peace, with some playful counterpoint between the strings and winds, leading towards a more animated central section. The main theme returned in a gentle pizzicato, unimpeachably good-natured. A thud in the timpani marked the third movement, with sinuous sixteenths testing the dexterity of the orchestra – a challenge easily surmounted, though again I found the tempo choice a tad rushed. This was the first of two nods to Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs, here a purely instrumental expansion of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, and not entirely a blithe affair as matters erupted into a primal scream.

In another moment of extreme contrast, a sudden shift to light and the divine was achieved in “Urlicht” (another Wunderhorn text), with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s rich introspection a voice from another world. The brass chorales were heavenly, and though only a few minutes in duration, this movement was easily the emotional heart of the entire work. The text concludes with longing for “das ewig selig Leben” – in his pre-concert lecture, Rabbi Roger Klein suggested that Mahler knew that “Urlicht” alone was inadequate to achieve these lofty ambitions, hence necessitating the massive finale, a grueling undertaking.

The calm of “Urlicht” was immediately uprooted with fury unrelenting. An offstage brass added a spatial dimension to the score’s rich detailing (some flubbed notes notwithstanding), and the resurrection motif was unassumingly introduced in the trombones and trumpets. Climaxes were of shattering power, although a more intimate moment saw the fluttering flute of Joshua Smith joined by delicate touches of piccolo. The chorus entered as a unified whisper, building to great force in due course. Joélle Harvey offered an angelic soprano, naturally blending with Cooke, and the organ added even more magnificence to work’s stunningly spectacular conclusion, surely representing the pinnacle of human triumph.

Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season closes in the magnificence of Beethoven’s Ninth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Erin Wall, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano
Norbert Ernst, tenor
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 17, 2018

Beethoven: Große Fuge, Op. 133 (version for string orchestra)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, Choral

Note: for comments on the May 10 performance, inclusive of Symphony Nos. 1 & 3 and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, please see here. For the performances from May 11-13 of Symphony Nos. 2 and 4-8 along with the Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore overtures, please see here.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s watershed centennial season, as well as the ambitious Prometheus Project has reached a glorious conclusion with a pair of Beethoven’s monumental masterpieces. While the biggest draw was certainly the exultant Ninth Symphony, the inclusion of the Große Fuge made the final entry in the series much more than a traversal of that well-known symphony, but a probing survey of the apex of Beethoven’s late style. Originally the concluding movement of the Op. 130 string quartet, the daunting Große Fuge functioned remarkably well independently; presented in transcription for string orchestra, it has appeared with frequency on a Welser-Möst program in spite of (or perhaps because of) its rigor.

Cleveland Orchestra, Beethoven
Welser-Möst conducting the Große Fuge, all photos credit Ken Blaze, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The string quartet’s orchestral potential was in full bloom here, immediately apparent from richness of the strings in the jarring opening and spiky dissonances. Calmer interludes only occasionally mitigated the bracing severity of the work, and it was quite a sight to so many bows in perfect synchronization, even in the most dizzyingly complex passages wherein Beethoven fully realized his contrapuntal potential hinted at in the Ninth Symphony.

That symphony, of unprecedented length during its time, generously filled the balance of the lavish program. Opening with protean, elemental germs of themes, it explored the most fundamental of intervals before coalescing into a rigorous sonata allegro, given with the precision and drive of a well-oiled machine. The scherzo of the Ninth is no lightweight trifle, but a creation just as weighty as the opening movement which the orchestra played with a relentless vigor, at times proceeding with a march-like swagger, elsewhere, as if in ghostly imitation of itself. Rustic warmth from the horns and the songfulness of the strings made for a trio that occupied a world apart. A choir of winds introduced the slow movement, giving way to a theme in the strings of absolute serenity, a moment where such a stormy figure as Beethoven was truly at peace with the world – in line with the love transcendent expressed unambiguously through Schiller’s text in the finale.

Even after two centuries, the vast closing movement stands in a class of its own in its ingenious melding of orchestra, choir, and soloists, as well the way it manages to encapsulate the entire symphony as a unified whole. A striking bitonality functioned as a call to arms, the climax of the tension between D minor and B flat major established early on. The main theme of each preceding movement was presented sequentially, a reminiscence as refracted through a newfound vantage point and punctuated by instrumental recitatives. The “Ode to Joy” first surfaced in the low strings, seemingly innocuous but blossoming to the full orchestra in due course.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton had a commanding recitative in the work’s first vocal appearance, delivering text written by the composer himself as a prologue to Schiller’s poem. There was a satisfying sense of coming full circle in engaging Burton for the season finale as he had last appeared on this stage during the performance of The Cunning Little Vixen with which this season began. The quartet of vocal soloists was remarkably well-balanced and of a natural chemistry; tenor Norbert Ernst had a notable moment during the movement’s “Turkish” episode while Erin Wall and Jennifer Johnston filled out the upper registers. Most impressive, however, was the stunning power of the chorus, particularly in the dazzling fugato, expertly prepared under the direction of Lisa Wong (who was officially promoted to chorus director just the day before). In taut cohesion with their orchestral counterparts, they led the symphony to a close of magnificent splendor, a memorable end to a memorable season.

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Cleveland Orchestra explores “divine ecstasy” in eclectic program

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Vinay Parameswaran, conductor
Lisa Wong, conductor
Iestyn Davies, countertenor
Paul Jacobs, organ
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
April 28, 2018

Gabrieli: Canzon per Sonar Septimi Toni No. 2, from Sacrae symphoniae
Gabrieli: Canzon per Sonar in Echo Duodecimi, from Sacrae symphoniae
Pärt: Magnificat
Gabrieli: O Magnum Mysterium, from Sacrae symphoniae
Kernis: “I Cannot Dance, O Lord”, No. 3 from Ecstatic Meditations
A. Gabrieli: Fantasia Allegra del duodecimo to­no
Gabrieli: Omnes gentes plaudite manibus
Bach: Cantata No. 170: Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170
Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”

Encore:
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532 – Fugue

Saturday night marked the final program of The Cleveland Orchestra’s utterly remarkable festival exploring Tristan und Isolde and its incalculable influence. The notion of ecstasy served as a common thread in the festival’s programs, certainly in the opera itself, and even more explicitly in Messiaen’s Turangalîla. Saturday’s program explored ecstasy in music through a religious lens, serving a wonderfully diverse smorgasbord of works that spanned five centuries. The first half was comprised of seven brief selections, thoughtfully strung together as a continuous arc. After introducing the program, Welser-Möst didn’t return until after intermission, passing the baton to Vinay Parameswaran (assistant conductor of TCO and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra), and Lisa Wong, acting director of the Chorus.

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Lisa Wong and Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Giovanni Gabrieli is often considered a veritable father figure in the realm of brass playing, writing extensively for brass ensembles that would be dispersed throughout the cavernous galleries at Venice’s Basilica di San Marco. Four of his works dating from the late 16th-century punctuated the first half, presented in arrangements for modern brass ensemble by Timothy Higgins, principal trombone of the San Francisco Symphony. In loose approximation of how the works would have performed at San Marco, two brass choirs were positioned at opposite ends of the stage. The Canzon per Sonar Septimi Toni No. 2 was a bright and festive opener, while Canzon per Sonar in Echo Duodecimi had a striking echo effect as suggested by the title with great intimacy of communication between players, even from across the stage.

Principal trumpet Michael Sachs switched the flugelhorn in O Magnum Mysterium, producing a timbre mellow and stentorian. Scored for the formidable forces of four choirs (two vocal, two brass) grounded by the organ as continuo, Omnes gentes plaudite manibus closed the first half in rousing fashion. The brass had a fine vocal quality – at the end unambiguously intoning the “Alleluja” – and were deftly balanced with the singers.

A varied assortment served as interludes between the Gabrieli, beginning with Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat for unaccompanied five-part chorus. Embodying the composer’s iconic tintinnabuli technique, the beauty of sound resonated as if frozen in time – and how well it fit alongside Gabrieli despite being displaced by several centuries. Aaron Jay Kernis’ “I Cannot Dance O Lord”, also scored a capella, offered a more jarring stylistic contrast (it being the program’s most contemporary work, composed in 1999). The choir was quite virtuosic with some colorful word-painting, very literally “whirling” at the close. Organist Paul Jacobs (a local favorite who appeared on this stage as recently as last November) was the standout of the evening, his first contribution taking the shape of the Fantasia Allegra for solo organ by Andrea Gabrieli – Giovanni’s uncle. A joyous and exultant affair, its contrapuntal intricacies were easily surmounted by the organist, a mere warm-up for what was to come.

The concert’s latter half took a rather different form in focusing on two lengthier works, beginning with Bach’s Cantata No. 170, engaging Welser-Möst, Jacobs, and countertenor Iestyn Davies. Welser-Möst imbued the opening aria with graceful, fluid gestures, and Davies offered a rounded and mellow tone, although at certain points I would have preferred crisper diction. The two recitatives (movements 2 and 4) were marked by organ obliggato, while prominent organ colored the central aria (Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen) as well. Here, Davies communicated deep melancholy and made an impressive showing in the melismas. Though concerned with sin, one couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of joy during the running sixteenths in organ of the concluding Mir ekelt mehr zu leben.

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Bach’s Cantata No. 170: Iestyn Davies, Franz Welser-Möst, and Paul Jacobs with The Cleveland Orchestra

Jacobs was the sole performer on stage for the program’s remainder, devoted to Liszt’s daunting Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” from Meyerbeer’s Le prophète. An interesting work to include during a festival celebrating Wagner as Meyerbeer’s meteoric success in Paris – particularly with Le prophète – fueled much of the envious German composer’s antisemitism. The Fantasy and Fugue is one of Liszt’s crowning achievements; written contemporaneously with the Piano Sonata in B minor, it too shows absolute mastery of large-scale form. It opened with darkness and foreboding, the dissonances piling on top of one another, and emerged as a free-form fantasy of a vast range of moods and colors. A central slow section presented the most literal statement of Meyerbeer’s chorale which Liszt generally used only obliquely, and offered a meditative respite. Liszt left much of the dynamics and registration open to interpretation; at one point Jacobs opted for some bell-like sororities, striking and quite effective. A fiery transition led to the massive fugue, with contrapuntal complexities defying imagination, Jacobs unleashed a firestorm of startling virtuosity.

Miraculously, the indefatigable Jacobs was still up for an encore, clearly enjoying the magnificent instrument. He returned to Bach in the D major fugue (BWV 532), ending the evening on a markedly cheerier note.

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Davies, Welser-Möst, and Jacobs

Cleveland Orchestra reaches ecstasy in Tristan und Isolde

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
April 21, 2018

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Gerhard Siegel, tenor (Tristan)
Nina Stemme, soprano (Isolde)
Okka von der Damerau, mezzo-soprano (Brangäne)
Ain Anger, bass (King Marke)
Alan Held, bass-baritone (Kurwenal)
Sean Michael Plumb, baritone (Melot)
Matthew Plenk, tenor (Young Sailor/Shepherd)
Francisco X. Prado, baritone (Steersman)

Men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

If there is one thing for which Franz Welser-Möst’s tenure in Cleveland is to be remembered, surely it should be his steadfast commitment to opera – hardly surprising for someone who has held music directorships at the major opera houses of Vienna and Zurich. This reached an apex Saturday night with the first of three performances of Wagner’s monumental and incomparable masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. Inclusive of two intermissions, total performance time fell just short of the five hour mark, yet the intensity never waned (although, regrettably, the number of empty seats noticeably increased following each intermission). A platform for the singers above the orchestra was erected at the back of the stage allowing the focal point to shift between the excellent cast and the orchestra. The opera was presented strictly in concert, sans staging, allowing one to be enraptured by the sheer beauty and power of the music undiluted.

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Gerhard Siegel (Tristan), Nina Stemme (Isolde), and Okka von der Damerau (Brangäne) with Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The justly famous prelude hovered on the edge of audibility, barely a few seconds in before the first statement of the dissonant Tristan chord that would remain unresolved until the very end. Welser-Möst’s fluid conducting gave the arching melodic lines an inexorable if unfulfilled sense of yearning. In spite of the star-studded cast of singers, one was reminded time and again that the orchestra was perhaps the evening’s biggest standout, sounding like the most seasoned of operatic ensembles. Tenor Matthew Plenk had the first vocal appearance in the role of the Young Sailor, singing unaccompanied from offstage – as effective here as he was in his other minor role of the Shepherd. The extraordinary Swedish soprano Nina Stemme served as Isolde, and much of the first act was centered on her dialogue with her maidservant Brangäne, given by Okka von der Damerau, whose darker-hued mezzo served as an ideal complement to Stemme.

Bass-baritone Alan Held was an imposing Kurwenal, providing a voice of reason amidst the surrounding passion. Gerhard Siegel was a fine if uneven Tristan, his first exchange with Isolde quickly shifting from confrontation to love song. The first act closed with courtly and glorious brass hailing the return of King Marke, to whom Isolde was to wed – an unsettling display of victory given the inevitability of tragedy. Also of note on the instrumentalist front were the solo passages of principal viola Wesley Collins, along with the plangent clarinet and sinuous English horn, the latter of which has unusual prominence in this work.

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Siegel (Tristan) and Stemme (Isolde) with Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra

The magical second act was centered on the two lovers, opening with a passionate prelude, with now distant horn calls signaling Marke’s departure for the evening. Stemme all but conquered the superhuman demands of her role, slicing through the even the densest orchestral passages, the immediacy and power this preeminent Isolde of our time extraordinary to witness. Siegel, though still arresting and convincing, wasn’t quite an even match as his delivery seemed to fall short of that of a true Heldentenor. Isolde lamented being a slave of the day, introducing the opera’s central duality of light versus dark – it is in the darkness of night where passions can run free and the pair celebrated in triumphant bliss, freed from the boundaries of daylight. A particularly affecting duet took a melody first developed in Wagner’s earlier song Träume from the Wesendonck Lieder. Mathilde Wesendonck, the song cycle’s namesake, was a married woman with whom Wagner was romantically entangled, that is to say, the plot of Tristan had analogs in the composer’s own biography (and parenthetically, local audiences had the recent chance to hear the lieder during a City Music concert this past December).

Damerau’s Brangäne warned of Marke’s impending return, a nearly surreal moment coming from offstage as the couple reached a state of transcendence together. Tristan introduced the passionate rapture motif, and a steadfast pull towards resolution of dissonance was abruptly halted by the appearance of the king, as true resolution could only happen in death. The Estonian bass Ain Anger supplied the role of Marke with sonorous and stentorian resound, aided by some fine playing in the bass clarinet. The somber prelude to the final act was a remarkable expression of pain (it too having roots in the Wesendonck Lieder). A shepherd was accompanied by a lone English horn, which Welser-Möst opted not to conduct, instead allowing the soloist rhapsodic, free-form delivery. Siegel had his finest moments here in Act III, with Tristan giving an impassioned monologue even while mortally wounded. The cellos yearned as Tristan and Isolde were briefly reunited, and Stemme’s closing Mild und leise was utterly rapturous, with the long-anticipated resolution finally arriving, and gloriously so. The shimmering, lustrous final chord left the audience in an almost trance-like state, and closed a performance that will persist in memory for years to come.

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Siegel (Tristan) and Stemme (Isolde) with Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra

 

Shimmering Ravel from Pintscher and Thibaudet

Cleveland Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 22, 2018

Ravel: Suite from Ma mère l’Oye
Ravel: Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand
 Encore:
 Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

While much of this year’s attention in the realm of French impressionism is focused on Debussy, it being the centenary of his death, the weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts opted to acknowledge another anniversary – the 90th of Ravel’s 1928 concert tour across North America, wherein he introduced audiences this side of the Atlantic to many of his works for the first time. The program, a generous sampling of Ravel at his best, was devised by Charles Dutoit, who was to conduct it with several major orchestras across the country, but alas, now that the truth has come to light, TCO and others have severed ties with him – and better late than never. On hand to take the reins was the talented composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, who previously served as this orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow from 2001-03.

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Matthias Pintscher and The Cleveland Orchestra, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The lovely suite from Mother Goose opened the evening, the fine flute solo in the “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” setting the tone of a nostalgic look backwards towards childhood. “Tom Thumb” had to be restarted after a minor disruption from latecomers filing in, but once matters got underway, limpid passages in the oboe and English horn conveyed a wonderful innocence, an innocence later marred by the lively portrayal of birds that expunged the titular character’s trail of breadcrumbs. Colorful orchestrations and playful pentatonicism made “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodes” especially charming, while “Conversations Between Beauty and the Beast” was marked by the contrast of Afendi Yusuf’s lyrical clarinet with Jonathan Sherwin’s stilted and lumbering contrabassoon. The concluding “Fairy Garden”, not tied to a narrative, was a magical world of iridescent orchestral color.

Both of Ravel’s piano concertos have long been central to Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s repertoire, and one couldn’t have asked for a more convincing soloist in the idiosyncratic Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, cast in a single movement, 18-minute arc. Thibaudet took to the stage looking as dapper as ever in his custom-made Vivienne Westwood suit. The work began with ominous, rumbling tremolos and, most unusually, a contrabassoon solo (what a night this was for the contrabassoon!). A commanding entrance in the piano followed suit, and one had to see it to believe that Thibaudet was indeed playing with only one hand in this powerful extended monologue. In the more lyrical passages, Thibaudet beautifully brought out the melody, a feat for which the left hand is particularly well-suited as the melodic notes are by design played with the hand’s strongest fingers. The pianist was finely abetted by richness of the orchestra, greatly expanded from the relatively modest forces of Mother Goose.

Downward cascades in the piano, later echoed in the winds, marked the work’s livelier second half, dominated by a spunky martial theme and boisterous, jazz-inflected climaxes. An expansive cadenza put Thibaudet in the spotlight once more, and the concerto was brought to an enormously satisfying close, as only someone who has truly mastered this daunting work could do. A rousing ovation brought Thibaudet back for an encore, and in keeping with the evening’s theme, he selected the same composer’s Pavane for a Dead Princess – a perfect choice indeed. When introducing the piece he jokingly noted that this time he’d play with both hands; his performance gorgeously brought out the heart-wrenching melody over the sumptuously chromatic accompaniment.

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Jean-Yves Thibaudet – playing with the left hand alone

Daphnis and Chloé is best known in the suites Ravel later distilled (the second of the two almost always the preferred choice), but at 50 minutes, the complete ballet remains the composer’s longest and most ambitious work, and it’s a shame it isn’t presented in its original conception more often – especially after a performance as memorable as what Pintscher and the Clevelanders gave. The ballet is particularly remarkable in its scoring for chorus, their wordless vocalizations alternating between open- and closed-mouthed for a variety of striking effects. Appearing early and often, the chorus added a rich layer to the already kaleidoscopic tapestry, further evidence that the well-worn suites are a mere shell of Ravel’s ambition. With several principals sitting out the first half, they appeared with vigor for Daphnis, of particular note was the silvery flute of Joshua Smith, and the winding oboe lines of Frank Rosenwein. Graceful solos were later had by concertmaster William Preucil, while the Danse générale was an energetic affair, boasting a glittering orchestration as only Ravel could do, replete with ample harp and celesta. The nocturne that closed Part I introduced a wind machine, an intriguing effect to be sure, but yet seemed perhaps out of place in a work otherwise so finely crafted (Stravinsky famously compared Ravel’s fastidiousness to that of a Swiss watch).

Part II opened with an interlude, made all the more mysterious by the chorus, and matters built to the aggressive War Dance, and there saw the evening’s most extrovert playing. Chloé’s Dance of Supplication was lush and sensuous by contrast, heightened by an English horn passage from Robert Walters. The familiar Daybreak marked the ballet’s final scene, a shimmering sunrise, with these liquescent rays of light a veritable apotheosis, and a much fuller effect was to be had with the inclusion of the chorus unlike as in the leaner suite. Pantomime was highlighted by an extended flute solo from Smith which represented Syrinx, also bringing to mind Debussy’s work for solo flute on the same subject. A further Danse générale closed the work which saw the chorus at full throttle for a most dramatic finish.

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Pintscher leading the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus

Welser-Möst closes winter residency with a festive (and truncated) Seasons

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Golda Schultz, soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 18, 2018

Haydn: Excerpts from Die Jahreszeiten, Hob. XXI:3

It is often joked that one can experience all four seasons during the course of a single day in Ohio, and this was certainly the case on Thursday with The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus performing Haydn’s late oratorio The Seasons, a traversal through each of the titular quarters of the calendar year. This is also unfortunately the season for illness: a matter of hours before the performance, two of the three vocal soloists were forced to withdraw for health reasons (tenor Maximilian Schmitt and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who himself was to replace an indisposed Thomas Hampson).

Without sufficient time to book substitutes, an abridged version of The Seasons was arranged, excising all parts for the male soloists. What was salvaged, however, was the not inconsiderable amount of material for orchestra, chorus, and soprano, all expertly prepared and certainly whetting one’s appetite for more. The many gaps were filled in with Welser-Möst’s user-friendly and often humorous commentary, a veritable Cliff’s Notes version of the whole work. As recompense for those hoping for a complete performance, complimentary tickets were offered for the Saturday performance, by which point Schmitt had adequately recovered and a substitute was found in Alexander Dobson, allowing Welser-Möst to close his brief winter residency on a festive note before taking the orchestra on tour to New York and Miami.

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Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

As with each section, an orchestral prelude began Spring, evidencing Haydn as master orchestrator, and here filled with pathos as the coldness of winter gradually subsided. For these performances, Welser-Möst opted for the German version of the text, although Haydn simultaneously prepared an English setting to appease his considerable following in London. The chorus sang of the sweetness of spring, given with a fittingly sweet tone, and a fugue brought matters to a resounding close – and the contrapuntal writing surely didn’t go unnoticed by Beethoven when writing his own major choral works.

Soprano Golda Schultz had a lovely aria in Summer; when singing of a shepherd’s reed, she was in poignant duet with oboist Frank Rosenwein. While the soprano’s role is perhaps the smallest of the three soloists, without her male counterparts on Thursday Schultz shined as the star of the performance. A tempest filled with Sturm und Drang broke the haze of summer (again, an almost certain inspiration for Beethoven in his Pastoral symphony) before closing in a peaceful evening. Regrettable, though, that the imitations of frogs and other summer wildlife had to be cut. The scheduled intermission following was also jettisoned, and rightfully so as the excerpts totaled about 70 minutes, roughly half the length of the complete piece.

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Franz Welser-Möst addressing the audience

A rustic and halcyon mood characterized Autumn, with a bevy of hunting horns serving as a rallying call and gestures in the orchestra that suggested barking dogs. The rousing chorus told of the joys and bounty of the harvest, replete with wine and bacchanalia. At one point, the orchestra imitated the folk sounds of bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy. The prelude to Winter painted a barren landscape, but Schultz’s aria added warmth to the cold in displaying the full operatic potential of her instrument. Near the work’s end, one found a meditation on the cyclical nature of life as symbolized by the recurrent seasons (and I couldn’t help but being reminded of the similar themes conveyed in the concluding scene of The Cunning Little Vixen, with which this season began), and a final song of praise brought the oratorio to a resplendent close.

A tip of the hat to all involved in successfully pulling off a radically altered performance on exceptionally short notice. While it goes without saying that this cut-and-paste version was a bit disjointed, I wondered if it was altogether necessary to attempt to fill the gaps instead of letting the music speak for itself, abridged or otherwise. Nonetheless, Welser-Möst’s commentary was well-received and in dutiful service to the score. In his opening remarks, executive director André Gremillet described the evening’s performance as a “unique concert experience” – that it surely was, and in the best way possible.

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Golda Schultz and Franz Welser-Möst