Sunday, July 30, 2017

Severance and Blossom: One Weekend, Two Concerts

This weekend, I was able to attend two concerts with The Cleveland Orchestra: one at Severance Hall, one at Blossom Music Center – with two superb young French pianists and two highly contrasting conductors.

Friday’s concert was at Severance Hall, as part of their Summers@Severance series – one hour concerts with no intermission which begin at 7:00 pm. 

Bertrand Chamayou was featured in Scriabin’s rarely played Piano Concerto.  Although I’ve heard the recording of this work by Vladimir Ashkenazy, this was the first time I’d attended a live performance.  Seeing the pianist play, as well as hearing the work, was most enlightening as to why this concerto is so seldom performed.  The work has as many notes per square inch as any of Rachmaninoff’s Concertos, it must be a beast to perform – yet it has little of the “sizzle” one hears in Rachmaninoff’s or even Chopin’s concertos.  Chamayou’s performance was startling in its soulful poetry and in its balance – two qualities which are too often seen as opposing virtues.  The orchestra under Susanna Mälkki provided an accompaniment which was superb in every way.  By the way, Chamayou used the Hamburg Steinway – and seldom has it sounded better.

After a brief pause where the piano was removed from the stage and the orchestra reseated, Mälkki returned for Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony.  This is a problematic work: the lovely themes are barely supported by an orchestration that’s not top flight and structure that’s not always certain.  Mälkki stuck to the original orchestration, but balanced the orchestra’s sections so that it sounded clearer than usual – Severance’s acoustics were a help, at least from my vantage point two-thirds of the way back on the main floor.  She also chose just the right tempo for each movement.  As for conducting style, Mälkki was a model of economy and precision.

Saturday evening, Daniel and I made the journey to Blossom.  We left rather early as it has been our usual custom to stop at the Burger King on State Road for a quick snack – the food at Blossom is grossly overpriced ($14 for a hamburger, $5 for a small bottled water).   We were blessed with seats in section 24, just left of center with an excellent view of the orchestra – both visually and sonically.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491, is easily his most advanced work in that form.  Although composed in 1786, it’s truly a 19th Century work – and a precursor of Beethoven’s later concertos.  The outer movements are highly chromatic – in fact, the opening movement’s primary theme uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  The outer movements are almost unrelentingly turbulent, while the central movement is one of Mozart’s most tranquil.

I’d never heard of David Fray before this concert, but he delivered a performance which was large scaled, dynamic and passionate – yet balanced and tasteful.   He chose the right tempo for each movement, in particular the central Larghetto which didn’t drag.  Mozart did not leave a cadenza for this concerto, and the cadenza Fray used was unfamiliar to me.  It may well have been by Fray himself, as it fit well with his conception of the piece.  The orchestra under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko furnished an appropriately large-scaled accompaniment.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, which followed intermission, was another matter.  The Second Symphony is among my five favorite works in that genre (the others are Mozart’s 41st, Beethoven’s 7th, Schubert’s 9th, and Brahms’ 4th).  Of all these favorites, the Rachmaninoff needs a firm hand and balanced mind to bring the work off – a conductor who can both follow the score and see beyond it.

So it distressed me to hear a performance from Petrenko in which tempos were all over the place – the conductor yielded to smell the daisies at every opportunity – and sluggish overall.  Petrenkos tendency to purchase effects and the expense of the whole resulted in a symphony which was robbed of overall continuity.  The balances between sections were also not of the quality one usually hears from the Cleveland Orchestra – although solo contributions by Peter Otto on violin and Daniel McKelway on Clarinet were technically superlative and appropriately soulful.   Petrenko’s rather balletic and grandiose podium manner was in marked contrast to Mälkki’s. 

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