Monday, November 28, 2016

Zweden and Trifonov at Severance

This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts featured guest conductor Jaap van Zweden and pianist Daniil Trifonov.  Given how the hall was nearly sold out and the parking garage was filled an hour before the concert began, it's no exaggeration to state that this was the hottest ticket in town.

The concert began with Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem.  The work was commissioned by the Japanese Government in 1940, in celebration of the 2600th anniversary of the founding of their empire.  Ultimately, the Japanese rejected the work (although Britten was still paid) on the grounds that the titles of the movements – Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, Requiem aeternam – were too Christian in character for Japan.    Given that the Japanese Empire was already engaging in atrocities against Manchuria, including cannibalism, the use of chemical weapons, and the wholesale slaughter of civilians, it’s probably for the best that Britten’s work was premiered in Carnegie Hall.

Last weekend was only the second time the Cleveland Orchestra had programmed the piece – the first was in 1976.  The movements are bound together, although it’s easy enough to determine where one ends and the other begins as there are no cross movement thematic references.  Despite many interesting passages – particularly in the Dies Irae – the piece lacks the dramatic line that carries the listener from beginning to end.

Mozart’s A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488 followed, with pianist Daniil Trifonov.  The work is one of Mozart’s most popular in that form.  Trifonov has a Cleveland connection, having lived here while studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Sergei Babayan.  On that basis alone, I’d love to be able to give the performance a rave review.  But I can’t honestly do that.   The opening movement, a lyrically cheerful Allegro, was devoid of inflection, rubato, and color.  It was as drab and as plain as could be.  Further, there were several right-hand passages that were blurred and tentative sounding – this was also an issue in the Finale.  The slow movement, an Adagio in F-sharp Minor (the only time Mozart used that as a home key) was taken at a tempo that could almost have been a Larghetto or even a Lento – so that the movement took the character of a funeral dirge in 6/8 time.  As with most slow movements of his piano concertos, Mozart did not fully write out the piano part, expecting pianists to improvise their own filler passages.  Trifonov played only the inscribed notes, except for a brief flourish nine bars before the end – which I realized was copied from Horowitz’s version.  The Finale, an Allegro assai, was reasonably brisk but – as with the rest of the concerto – played at a disappointingly small scale.  This was Rococo, porcelain doll Mozart - a cautious conservatory rendition, designed to offend as few as possible – but fated to fade in memory after a brief time.  The audience, however, leapt to its feet as of Trifonov had just slaughtered the piano in the Rachmaninoff Third – including a woman two seats away from me who talked with her husband through much of the Britten.  I can only surmise that the audience was packed with Trifonov’s fans who were apt to suspend judgement for “their boy” – certainly there were many unfamiliar faces that night.  Zweden kept the orchestra in time with the pianist. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven’s ubiquitous Fifth Symphony.  Probably the most well-known orchestral work in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Fifth has one characteristic in common with Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem: the joining of movements – although in Beethoven’s case only the Third and Fourth Movements are joined – to the best of my knowledge the first time that had ever been done in a Symphony by a major composer.  Zweden, whose tempos were well judged (although the Finale was a bit overly fast), paid careful attention to balances, observed all the repeats, made striking use of dynamics, and brought the work to a thrilling conclusion.

The concert was nearly sold out.  Perhaps that was a factor in the constant coughing we heard – particularly throughout the Mozart – the worst such cacophony of audience eruptions I’ve heard at Severance.  

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