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12th May 2019


Sam Jacobson

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!

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11th May 2019


Timothy Robson

Russian-born conductor Semyon Bychkov is lauded for his performances of Strauss and Wagner operas and other late Romantic works. That experience was on display in this week’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts. The orchestra, with its reputation for lithe and almost chamber-orchestra precision, sounded unusually warm and full in performances of music by Bruch and Smetana, as well as the US premiere of Detlev Glanert’s arresting 2013 work Weites Land: Music mit Brahms (Wide Open Land, Music with Brahms) the title of which was almost as evocative as the music itself.

Glanert’s Wide Open Land was thoroughly Romantic in its rich orchestral textures, in a harmonic idiom that is often dissonant but still recognizably tonal, with hints of late Mahler, Berg, Henze, even Britten. In its ten minutes there are slithering string chordal passages, trumpet fanfares, battles between strings and brass and a quiet lyrical passage completely free of dissonance that is shocking in its serene unexpectedness. There are implications of Brahms throughout, but just hints and never wholesale quotations of the 19th-century master’s work such as Berio did with Mahler in his Sinfonia. TCO and Bychkov emphasized this contrast, and the music’s rough edges were smoothed out. Based on this alluring performance, I’d like to hear this piece again and more of Glanert’s work in the future. It’s worthy of greater exposure.

In the 34 years since their debut with The Cleveland Orchestra, Katia and Marielle Labèque have maintained pre-eminence in the admittedly not large circle of regular duo-piano teams. Besides commissioning new works, they have resurrected lesser-known gems from the past. Such was the case this week in the first Cleveland Orchestra performances of Max Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Op.88a, completed in 1915. It is an arrangement of – and shares an opus number with – an orchestral suite Bruch had written several years before he received a commission from two sisters from Baltimore who wanted a two-piano concerto.

The work is a thoroughly Romantic piano concerto, with big tunes and plenty of piano filigree to satisfy the most demanding fan. Bruch did take some shortcuts; in some places, melodic passages are simply divided between the two pianos, rather than adding more music to surround the pre-existing music. Katia and Marielle Labèque were commanding soloists, with tonal resources to match the robust orchestration. The ebb and flow of the music was well-judged by the orchestra, conductor, and soloists. Even if it’s not a timeless masterpiece, Bruch’s concerto fills a historical musical hole between Mozart and the 20th century. And with this quality of performance, it was fun to be along for the ride.

The Labèques played an encore, Le jardin féerique the last movement of Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye. Their performance was lyrically delicate, even in the crescendo leading to the end of the movement.

Each of the symphonic poems in Bedřich Smetana’s suite Má Vlast (My Homeland) was composed and premiered separately between 1874 and 1877, so Bychkov’s choice of the first three poems, VyšehradVltava and Šárka, was appropriate. Few composers (except, perhaps, Wagner at the beginning of Das Rheingold) have so completely captured the flow of of the River Vltava, with its tune that in later years has become almost a Czech anthem. The orchestral sound was velvety, with a natural flow as the movements progressed. It was exhilarating to hear these very familiar pieces sounding as if they had been rethought, with not a hint of routine.

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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.

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4th May 2019


Thomas May

For his recent pair of programs guest conducting the New York Philharmonic over the past two weeks, Semyon Bychkov has made a point of combining familiar repertoire with new discoveries. At the end of April, it was a Brahms symphony with the American premiere of Thomas Larcher’s Symphony no. 2 (Kenotaph), a response to the tragedy of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean. The Russian returned to the podium for a second program that placed Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben side-by-side with a piece that might as well have been a premiere: the last time the NY Phil performed the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra(Op.88a) by Max Bruch was in 1917.

Bruch’s score is a sunset piece completed in 1915, when the long-lived composer was in his late 70s. He tailored it from a pre-existing orchestral suite (begun in 1904) in response to a request from Ottilie and Rose Sutro, an American piano duo who had come to know Bruch during their student years in Berlin. The sister pianists premiered it with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in 1916 and then brought it to the NY Phil the following year.

Bruch himself apparently never heard his Concerto for Two Pianos performed and strangely kept his distance from it as well as from the suite from which it emerged, neither of which he wanted to publish. To simplify the piece’s demands for their abilities, the Sutro sisters revised and cut without Bruch’s knowledge and even finagled their way into getting the copyright for themselves. The unadulterated original score resurfaced only half a century after Bruch’s death. (It had to wait until 1989 to receive its British premiere.) The NY Phil concert in David Geffen Hall marked just the second time that the orchestra has played the concerto – and the first time it presented the score Bruch actually composed.

It’s understandable that James Keller’s entertaining program notes describe the bizarre and sordid history behind the concerto at length: the music itself is not particularly notable, even when serving as the vehicle for the stylishly virtuosic flair of Katia and Marielle Labèque. Indeed, it was often hard to be convinced why the work should exist as a concerto for two pianos in the first place. (Bruch’s suite gave a major role to solo organ.) Cast in four movements, it alternates between neoclassical posturing – of a stern and somber, not playful, variety – and the melancholy Romanticism mostly associated with this composer. Without knowing the date beforehand, most would assume it was written in the previous century and not guess that it actually postdates Ein Heldenleben.

The opening movement, for example, unrolls like a prelude, with the pianos joining in lugubrious, stately stride (part of the original suite was inspired by the site of a Corpus Christi procession the composer had watched while vacationing on Capri). Bruch’s intertwining of the keyboards with the orchestra at times brought to mind the spirit of Stokowski’s heavy-handed Bach transcriptions. The Adagio is a lovely nocturne brushed by gauzy strings, but little in the work as a whole is really memorable, and the solo spotlight moments for the two pianos rely too much on predictable formulas.

Still, it could hardly have more eloquent champions than Bychkov and the Labèques, who even recorded the piece a quarter century ago and who revive it on their programs from time to time. The sisters, dressed in reverse-pattern black-and-white suits, were flawlessly in sync and sensitively attuned to the orchestral accompaniment shaped by Bychkov. Of far greater musical interest was the encore they offered of part of Philip Glass’s wondrous Four Movements for Two Pianos, which found them building inexorable waves that paired logic and affect convincingly.

The Strauss part of the program after intermission devoured any lingering memory traces of Bruch’s underwhelming score. If the programmatic combination proved a bit awkward, the pairing of Bychkov and the NY Phil was magnificent and deeply satisfying. Ein Heldenleben can come across as intolerably distended, even sorely out of focus, for long stretches in the absence of a firm vision and committed musicianship. These were happily in abundance for this outsize tone poem – a kind of summation of the young Strauss’s state-of-the-art orchestral technique up to that point.

Bychkov’s firm control of the piece’s narrative spine left plenty of room to elicit characterful phrasing and expression from each section of the orchestra. “The Hero’s Enemies” evoked Beckmesser-like cartoonishness, and we were in effect treated to a second concerto in the lengthy “The Hero’s Companion” section as concertmaster Frank Huang traced a vividly memorable portrait of the composer’s complex, contradictory wife Pauline; the violinist’s long pauses between phrases showed a keen dramaturgical sensibility. Completely at home with Straussian polyphony – its harmonies and colors – Bychkov gave the score’s epic crescendos a powerful, inevitable shape, like a river surging from ice melt.

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