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Friday, November 9, 2012

Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall

Posted By on Fri, Nov 9, 2012 at 5:18 PM

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If you have not been to Severance Hall lately, this would be a very good weekend to find out why the Cleveland Orchestra continues to rank among the best in the world. And even if you have been to Severance Hall lately, you will not want to miss this weekend’s program.

It opens with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, a work that for many orchestras would constitute a concluding piece. Certainly conductor and Music Director Franz Welser-Möst gave it that kind of attention, crafting a balanced performance filled with powerful internal dynamics that avoided the usual clichés of being overly loud and bombastic. His ability to draw out the deep emotions in the piece while still keeping the overall sound crisp and understated was a model of intelligence and restraint. One could travel throughout many of the major music cities of Europe and not hear such refined treatment of Beethoven.

And how many orchestras would follow up a Romantic classic with a modern work that premiered just six months ago? Matthias Pintscher’s Chute d’Étoiles (Falling Stars) was given its world premiere by the Cleveland Orchestra at the Lucerne Festival in May, and if it was half as good as last night’s performance, the Swiss were lucky indeed. A series of aural explosions punctuated by staccato lines and sonic effects from two trumpet soloists, Pintscher’s work pushes even the boundaries of modern music.

Judging by the appreciative but hesitant applause, the audience was a bit dazed by it — not a surprising first reaction to a piece that sounds like an electrical storm being channeled through orchestral instruments. But there was no question about the sharp, smart work by soloists Michael Sachs and Jack Sutte, who got some sounds out of their instruments that this critic would not have thought possible. First-rate work all around, and a courageous act of programming by Welser-Möst.

The second half opened with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in B flat major (Op. 133), a demanding piece that challenges even the best ensembles. The tempo felt rushed at times, perhaps due to the complexity of the overlapping rhythms, which occasionally jostled against each other. Still, it was a penetrating reading of a seminal work, carefully controlled even (and especially) in the initial pauses.

As it turned out, the best was saved for last: Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, a brilliant fever dream with wild swings of mood and contrast. There is little in the way of conventional structure or rhythm in the piece, which often seems to be going in several different directions at once. For Welser-Möst to not just hold it together, but find playful elements and ominous undertones in the roiling passions that unfold from the first notes of the fantastic, shimmering opening was breathtaking. Even in the wake of the high standards set for the Russian repertoire by Pinchas Steinberg last month, this was a superlative performance.

And this review is rather too glowing for a normally fastidious critic. But the joy of the music is that sometimes it sweeps you away, making the usual tally of pluses and minuses irrelevant. This is one of those rare occasions. Don’t miss it.

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