12th May 2019
The Cleveland Orchestra certainly has a knack for presenting programs that resist the tried-and-true, and Thursday’s concert was no exception, another triumph of imaginative programming with both works on the first half receiving their inaugural performances from this ensemble. Guest conductor Semyon Bychkov has championed the works of contemporary composer Detlev Glanert, and opened the evening with the US premiere of the 2013 work Weites Land. Roughly translating to English as Wide Open Land, the work also bears the subtitle Musik mit Brahms. Like Brahms, Glanert hails from Hamburg, and the work of the elder composer has often served as his guiding light – here quite patently so, with the arching primary theme of the Fourth Symphony serving as the present work’s structural backbone. An obvious invocation of the symphony opened, familiar for a fleeting moment, then morphing into dissipated modernity. The Brahms theme served as guideposts at various intervals, while the wide, open spaces between were filled with colorfully dissonant filigree, often unexpected yet still approachable, and ultimately a brief Brahmsian gesture brought matters to a close.
A true rarity followed in the Concerto for Two Pianos by Max Bruch, featuring the acclaimed Labèque sisters (who opted for the Bruch in favor of the initially programmed work for the same forces by Martinů). Bruch completed the work in 1915, near the tail end of his career, in fact with another sibling duo in mind, Rose and Ottilie Sutro. To the composer’s dismay, the dedicatees performed the work in a vastly simplified version, and Bruch’s original version didn’t surface to the public until the 1970s. Bruch’s intentions were certainly respected and challenges easily surmounted Thursday evening; between the two pianists, the opening theme was presented in eight octaves, a commanding beginning saturated in solemnity. An exacting fugue followed, beginning in the pianos, and blossoming to great power when the orchestra joined.
A slow introduction marked the next movement, with sweeping arpeggios on the keyboards and gentle touches in the oboe from Frank Rosenwein. The movement proper was of scherzo-like playfulness, contrasted by the lyrical beauty of the succeeding. The octave theme returned in the finale, a passionate last vestige of German Romanticism (indeed, the four movement structure certainly pointed towards the Brahms concertos as inspiration). A work which soloists and conductor clearly believe in (having recorded it some years ago), though to my ears not the most melodically rewarding. The duo encored with the final segment of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye – gorgeous playing which said more in those few minutes than in Bruch’s twenty-five.
Bychkov currently serves as music director of the Czech Philharmonic, and accordingly was able to offer penetrating insights to the first three selections of Smetana’s Má vlast. A work central to Czech musical culture, it inaugurates the storied Prague Spring International Music Festival every year on May 12, the anniversary of the composer’s death – coming just days after the present performance. Vyšehrad opened with a pair of harps, lush and rhapsodic, to set the stage for the epic tale of the namesake fortress. The Vyšehrad theme – which reappears throughout the cycle – was first sounded by the horns, warm and mellow. The vicissitudes of the castle through history were depicted, always majestic in the end.
By far the most recognizable of the six tone poems, Vltava began with liquescent flutes in evocation of the confluence of the springs that form the titular river. Matters swelled to a richly lyrical theme, arching, aching, and the picturesque journey of the river was painted in delirious detail. Most memorable was the “night music”, fantastical and sublime, as well as the appearance of the Vyšehrad theme when the river snaked its way through Prague, displaying the full splendor of the Cleveland brass. The ferocity with which Šárka opened portended the darkly murderous tale to come. Folk-inflected material and the lambent clarinet of Afendi Yusuf offered some momentary respite, yet the music inexorably culminated in a violent, gruesome end. One’s appetite was certainly whetted for more Smetana – as noted in the program books, the orchestra hasn’t performed Má vlast complete since 1976, so surely it is high time for a traversal of the full cycle!