During the early 1940s, George Szell was one of many musicians displaced by the war in Europe and living in the United States. Arturo Toscanini, by then a living legend and head of the NBC Symphony, invited Szell to guess conduct his orchestra in 1941. Szell led two concerts, one of which can be heard here. The rehearsals for those concerts were fraught, as Toscanini did not approve of Szell’s rehearsal technique and let Szell know in explosive terms. But the quality of the NBC performance under Szell speaks for itself. Contrast that with Szell’s own behavior two decades later. By then, Toscanini was dead, Szell was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra and had raised their standards to the point that Cleveland was considered to have the best orchestra in the United States – perhaps even the world. Leopold Stokowski, as much a living legend as Toscanini had been and a polar opposite to Szell musically, visited for a series of guest concerts. Szell was present at the first rehearsal as the mercurial conductor began altering balances and encouraged the strings to bow freely. The orchestra manager, sitting next to Szell, feared Szell may explode much as Toscanini had done in 1941. Instead, as Stokowski began conducting a Cleveland Orchestra that suddenly sounded like the pre-1936 Philadelphia Orchestra, Szell looked toward the manager and smiled. In Szell’s smile was the implication that “his” orchestra could turn on a dime and serve the musical needs of any conductor.
Last night’s concert, under guest conductor Jakub Hrůša and dedicated to 20th Century music, proved the Cleveland Orchestra can still turn on a dime when needed. Whether the results were to the advantage of the music depended on the composition and listener’s taste.
The first work, by Czech composer Miloslav Kabeláč, was entirely new to me and new to the orchestra. Mystery of Time is essentially a mood piece, beginning quietly and slowly and building in volume and speed until a raucous conclusion. Parts of the work reminded me of Howard Shore’s score to Silence of the Lambs which was, of course, composed decades later – so Shore may have been influenced by this piece.
The Hamburg Steinway was then brought on stage for Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, featuring soloist Emanuel Ax – a genial and welcome presence here. I’ve only heard this work once before, in a less than convincing recording under Robert Craft’s direction with soloist Philippe Entremont. Hrůša and Ax brought a more unified conception to the work – which can sound disjointed in the wrong hands – which sacrificed nothing in terms of spontaneity and wit. The performance was warmly received and Ax gifted the audience with an encore: Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, poetically played.
The second half of the program was dedicated to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – a work which the orchestra has played since it was “hot off the press.” The story of this work’s composition is so well known it hardly needs repeating, but here it is: Shostakovich’s previous works, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and The Limpid Stream, were met with official disapproval, which in 1930s Russia carried significant threat. He set aside his Fourth Symphony, then in rehearsals, and began composing on the Fifth, which was touted in the state-controlled press as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism". The work’s premiere was triumphant and restored Shostakovich’s reputation among Soviet power-brokers. It is a work of the most profound suffering, with every appearance of major key relief a trap-door into more heartbreak, until the finale where there appears to be a sense of victory – at least on the surface. It wasn’t until decades later that it was revealed that the symphony’s “triumphant” coda was intentionally hollow – a depiction of a man being told he’s never had it so good while being savagely beaten. The work’s conclusion is thus, in many ways, similar to the protagonist’s “love” for Big Brother at the end of George Orwell’s 1984 – after being brainwashed into believing that love is hate, and vice versa.
Hrůša’s interpretation was one that emphasized the work’s extremes. I’ve never heard the Cleveland Orchestra play so quietly or loudly: softly enough that they were barely audible even on the main floor; loudly enough that some players were pushed beyond their normal tonal capacity. While this served to bring out certain elements of the piece, in particular the jingoism of the second movement, there were a number of wrong notes from woodwinds and brass, as well as faulty balances. On the other hand, there were elements of the scoring that I’d never heard before, in particular during the climax of the work’s searing Largo. Further, Hrůša emphasized the dissonance in some of the part-writing that other conductors, in particular Stokowski and Bernstein, glossed over. This was not a heartfelt Shostakovich Fifth, of the sort led by Stanisław Skrowaczewski in 2015, but a raw performance which uncovered the brutality of Stalin’s Russia. It was one of many legitimate approaches to this complicated work, which held the audience’s attention and roused them at the end.