Concertgoers were treated to an unusual and challenging program at Severance this past weekend, in which well-known music commingled with the lesser known, and with the all but unknown.
Standard practice is to place the best known piece of music at the end, a measure calculated to keep butts in seats until the end of the concert. This practice was reversed. The opening work was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in G major – my own favorite of the Beethoven Concertos. The soloist was Murray Perahia, whose recorded cycle of Beethoven concertos with Bernard Haitink is as close to a reference set as can be attained in such oft-recorded works. His rendition with the Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday night was on the same exalted level, although many details differed from the recorded version – evidence that Perahia’s conception of the music continues to evolve and that final, definitive versions of such variegated works are impossible. The opening chords to the work were especially rapt and concentrated – despite a bit of noise caused by a late arriving audience member. One of the shifts in Perahia’s interpretation is that he now emphasizes the rhythmic underpinnings of the first movement over the right-hand filigree, so that the structure of the work emerges with more clarity than before. This may be disappointing to those who prefer the “sizzle” of rapid runs and double-trills, but it fit the generally broader conception of the piece which reached its zenith during the expansively played cadenza (Beethoven’s own, with a bit of octave doubling that reminded me of Busoni’s version). The audience was moved enough to offer a bit of spontaneous, in-between-movement applause. The rapt slow movement was truly a dialogue which led seamlessly to the balletic finale. Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra provided a simpatico and symphonic accompaniment.
I noted that a portion of the audience which left the hall at intermission did not return afterwards. The loss was theirs, for the remainder of the concert was a demonstration of just what this orchestra is capable of. One of Welser-Möst’s underappreciated talents is for bringing cohesiveness to music which is not often easily followed – bringing order to seeming chaos. I witnessed it several years ago when he led the orchestra in a riveting performance of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Such was the case in the even more challenging Transfigured Night of Arnold Schoenberg. Welser-Möst kept the tempo moving and the balances transparent, and listening to this work – a purely musical retelling of infidelity and forgiveness – I was struck by a metaphor for the tonal center in music. The tonal center, or the home key, is like a piece of salt-water taffy. In Beethoven’s G major Concerto it’s stretched only slightly. In the Schoenberg it was stretched to the absolute limit without being broken. But in the final work of the program, Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, the tonal center was obliterated within the first few measures. The work depicts the chaos of life in New York circa 1920, from the vantage point of someone who grew up in a small town in France. But to portray this chaos, it took perfect control and balance, which were provided by Welser-Möst and the orchestra, augmented with so many extra players that the stage seemed crammed with performers and equipment. Though what remained of the audience was likely shattered by the cacophony, they recalled the conductor to the stage several times and cheered when he singled out individual sections for recognition.