This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance featured guest conductor Antoni Wit and pianist Jan Lisiecki.
The concert began with Wagner’s Polonia Overture, one of the composer’s earliest works. This was the first time the work was being played by the orchestra, which is saying something for a work by a major composer and an orchestra that’s been performing masterworks for 98 years. Indeed, I’d never heard the piece. After the initial bars, it was easy to understand why the overture is rarely performed. It trades in bombast what it lacks in thematic material or development. After a good night’s sleep, I was unable to recall one “tune”, which has never been the case with any other Wagner work I’ve heard over the last 35 years. The performance was mainly characterized by loudness. More on that later.
After a brief break while the Hamburg Steinway was rolled onto the platform, Jan Lisiecki took to the stage for a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor. Lisiecki is a Canadian pianist of Polish parentage. Just 21, he has already secured a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and is a veteran performer. One takes for granted that the pianist’s technique was more than up to the task of this finger twisting concerto. But this performance has a special quality that went beyond that. Lisiecki brought to the Concerto a metric freedom, sense of rubato, and coloristic sense that reminded me of the pianists of the Golden Age – particularly Benno Moiseiwitsch. Each episode of the concerto was beautifully characterized, while the work’s overall structure cohered.
Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony occupied the second half of the concert. The Eroica is one of the most often performed works in the repertoire. The orchestra could no doubt play it in its sleep. But the opening was rough: the orchestra was not together in the first of two E-flat major chords that start the work. In short order, the orchestra was together again, and the movement proceeded at a quick pace. Zachary Lewis, in his Plain Dealer review of Thursday evening’s concert, complained about the “ponderous” tempo Wit chose for the Funeral March. Either Lewis is wed to the HiPster school of interpretation, or Wit chose a brisker pace between Thursday’s concert and Saturday’s – as the tempo I heard was dead center normal for Beethoven interpretation – similar to Szell’s tempo in his famous Cleveland recording. But the performance was problematic nevertheless. Wit didn’t seem to be interested in such matters as balance, dynamics (aside from the Chopin Concerto, there was little sense of pianissimo and often the music was just plain loud) or tonal beauty. This was the first, and I hope only, time I’ve heard the Cleveland Orchestra making anything less than a beautiful sound. It has been a truism over the last dozen years that the Cleveland Orchestra often plays at its best with a guest conductor. Not this time.