Sunday, April 18, 2004

Stephen Scores

Saturday night, I went to Severance Hall to see Stephen Hough perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. Ivan Fischer was the guest conductor.

The program at Severance was all Russian. The brief excepts from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges were played with bite and pungency. Then Stephen Hough came onstage for the Rachmaninoff.

Immediately, I knew we were in for a commanding performance. The pianist did not linger over the opening chords as is customary, but played them strictly in time. The tempo for the first movement was a bit faster then usual, and was expunged of all the “traditional” ritardandos and accellerandos that pervade all too many performances of this piece. Conversely, the second movement was a bit slower than usual. Not dragged like Pogorelich has done, but there were blessed moments of suspended animation. My only complaint was that in the slow movement’s wrap-up, the strings were too loud, so that the woodwind triplets were obscured. The finale went at a great clip, with liberal mixing of inner voices on Hough’s part. There was a brief lapse (a mis-struck bass note), which Hough acknowledged with a sheepish grin toward the conductor.

The rest of the concert went well, a rousing Stravinsky Petrouchka suite (the 1947 version) was followed by a searing performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. I must admit, after hearing how the orchestra played their hearts out under Ivan Fischer, that my first thought was that Cleveland’s powers that be should vigorously recruit him and ditch Franz Welser-Most—-who has been dubbed Frankly Worse that Most by more than one critic.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

"No fingers!"

That was a remark pianist Moritz Rosenthal is alleged to have made upon hearing that fellow pianist Artur Schnabel had been rejected from military service.

Last night my friend I went to see the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra with Conductor Carl Topilow at Severance Hall. It’s always a treat to hear them at Severance, since their usual locale, Kulas Hall, tends to be a bit dry acoustically.

The CIM played the first half of the program superbly. Carl Topilow hadn’t even waited for the applause to finish before he lanched into a rollicking Maskarade Overture by Nielsen. The orchestra brought sustained pianissimo playing in the Britten Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, and superb ensemble work in one of my favorites, Prokofiev’s suite from Lieutenant Kije. The trumpet soloist contributed some fine work, discreetly darting on and off stage for his more distant solos. It is no exaggeration to say that the CIM’s kids play at a level that many professional orchestras would envy.

After intermission came the Beethoven Concerto in G Major, my favorite Beethoven Concerto and one of my favorite Concertos in the entire repertoire. The soloist was Jerome Lowenthal, who was greeted with a big publicity splash in Sunday’s Plain Dealer. Again, the orchestral contribution was fine. The same can’t be said for Lowenthal’s playing. The performance was a mis-mash of dropped (not played) notes, wrong notes, awkward phrasing, poor balance between piano and orchestra (entirely the fault of the soloist) and overpedalling to the extent that Beethoven’s piano writing was at times incomprehensible. This is a professional pianist? Half the students at CIM could play it better than he did. Indeed, at the 1997 competition several contestants played this very same concerto, and they all did a better job. I’ve heard about 40 different performances of this concerto, from legendary interpreters such as Kempff and Rubinstein, all the way down to students, but I have never heard the piece sloppily molested as it was last night. What a disappointment!

About the only point of interest in Lowenthal’s performance was the fact that he played a new Cadenza by Rzewski in the first movement and one by Medtner in the last. Rumor has it he’s to record the concerto with several different cadenzas, which the listener may choose from, but that would be the only reason to buy this disc.