10th May 2019
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Don’t be fooled by its squareness. There’s nothing conventional about this week’s Cleveland Orchestra program.
Even as it followed the standard overture-concerto-symphony format, the opening-night performance Thursday broke plenty of fresh ground, offering a new or unusual work in each slot.
That’s not all. With conductor Semyon Bychkov at the helm and Katia and Marielle Labeque at two pianos, the performances were illuminating, and the three works ended up coalescing far more tightly than one might have expected.
At first glance, the slate appeared rather random: Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos (in place of Martinu’s Concerto for Two Pianos), three Symphonic Poems from Smetana’s “Ma Vlast,” and the U.S. premiere of “Wide Open Land” by German composer Detlev Glanert.
As the evening progressed, however, something like a through-line took shape. All three came to sound like branches off the same Romantic-era tree, and the music seemed to grow out of a common interest in physical landscapes. An enchanting encore by the Labeque sisters, Ravel’s “The Fairy Garden,” only reinforced the notion.
Glanert’s “Wide Open Land,” from 2013, readily lived up to its subtitle, “Music with Brahms.” The piece began with a brief quote from Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, then gave way to a kaleidoscopic array of raucous outbursts, eerie murmurings, and expansive melodies. Further echoes of the symphony came and went, in fragmentary form, gradually crafting a panorama akin to a landscape. It was a beautiful experience, 10 minutes of vibrant color and drama.
The same words apply at greater length to Smetana’s “Ma Vlast.” Aptly, handling a Czech masterpiece, the music director of the Czech Philharmonic led three superlative performances, each as rich in character and nuance as the next.
“Vysehrad” (“The Mighty Fortress”) practically glowed, so luminous were its many solos, so soft were its edges. “The Moldau,” too, the most famous movement from “Ma Vlast,” readily did justice to its namesake, conjuring a majestic river in all its shapeliness, depth, and raw power.
Last but not least: “Sarka The Warrior Maid,” in a zesty reading brimming with animation and aggression. Some no doubt weren’t aware of the violent tale it told, but all in attendance certainly got the gist.
The connection to landscapes was a bit weak in the Bruch Concerto. The shadow of Brahms and his descendants, however, loomed large in the Cleveland premiere of a score full of counterpoint, lush harmonies, dense chords, and lacy filigree.
No wonder the work’s first interpreters modified the score. They can’t have possessed half the virtuosity of the Labeque sisters or one-quarter of their sheer elegance or ability to share emotions and communicate from opposite keyboards.
In their silken hands, the music in its original form shone like a tapestry and hummed along with stately grandeur. So potent was their account of the first movement’s fugue, this listener would give much to hear it again.
Many others surely share that sentiment. In the end, this is one of those programs that warrants both a double-take and a second listen.