April 26, 2011
The Cleveland Orchestra with Kurt Masur & David Fray
To listen to the Cleveland Orchestra under guest conductor Kurt Masur is to remember why German nineteenth-century music matters so much to the orchestral repertoire. Now in his eighties, Masur brings six decades of experience to his conducting, and his recordings of the great nineteenth-century symphonic cycles including Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn, this concert's composers are both indispensible and unforgettable.
On the podium at Severance Hall Thursday evening, Masur guided the orchestra through three stunning performances. He conducted for the players, not for the audience; the often-miniscule cues he gave to the orchestra resulted in music of structural and artistic clarity and integrity. The players responded eagerly to his musical ideas, as did the audience (judging from the blessed absence of coughing as well as the enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of the concert).
Mendelssohn's well-known 'Hebrides' Overture had scope and seriousness. Masur's tempo was more moderato than allegro, allowing us space to see the grand "cathedral" of Fingal's Cave and to explore its Romantic and heroic associations in the mind of the young Mendelssohn, who visited it on his walking tour of Scotland in 1829. Trumpet calls echoed across the resonant spaces of Severance Hall like echoes of the heroic sagas. Just before the stirring climax, Masur gave us one of those great orchestral experiences of suspended time and focused attention, the kind that had only recently become possible in Mendelssohn's time: the orchestra pulled back to a barely audible pianissimo, out of which the clarinets played their tranquil reprise of the cantabile motif. It was heartbreakingly beautiful.
Young French pianist David Fray joined the orchestra for Beethoven's B-flat concerto, a sophisticated Viennese contrast to the eager German Romanticism of the Hebrides overture. Lyrical and assured, Fray's playing was vibrantly present but never aggressive. Masur kept the orchestra in perfect balance. When the music called for it, Fray gave us a gorgeously liquid legato, but never sentimentalized the music, which wore its courtly urbanity with elegance. A slight glitch between soloist and orchestra at the end of the first cadenza seemed to matter hardly at all; in the third movement, the tunes passed back and forth between soloist and orchestra with confidence and clarity.
From early Beethoven to late Brahms lies almost a full century, a sea-change from classicism to high Romanticism. Hearing Brahms' fourth (and last) symphony in the hands of Masur reminds of how important classical form was to the musicallyconservative Brahms, even at the end of the nineteenth-century: sonata form, melodic line, articulation of orchestral colors, above all a sense of musical structure.
From the very first note, the tone of Romantic tragedy is set. Masur let that first note (a high B in the violins) hang just a little longer than written, as if holding back from its plunge downward in the minor triad and the subsequent rise-and-fall of that unsettling first theme. Giving us turmoil and respite the latter largely made possible by Masur's unerring sense of the importance of quietness even in an impassioned piece the performance seemed to represent not only an ongoing struggle of the soul, but also to give us glimpses (memories, perhaps?) of serenity.
As always in the Cleveland Orchestra, the winds and brass were stunning: to mention only one, Franklin Cohen's soulful clarinet one of late Brahms' beloved instruments was essential to the sense of introspective and anxious questioning that marks the symphony. The strings also stood out throughout the piece; not only did they produce that rich, deep Brahms power in the big passages, but even their texture-work the fleeting arpeggios, the broken chordal gestures, the complex passagework, the haunting off-beat pizzicati early in the great fourth-movement passacaglia contributed to the symphony's overall intensity.
This was an evening of well-known pieces from the core of the orchestral canon. But played with this kind of vital music-making, they were never presented merely as chestnuts; each in its own way sounded like a piece that these musicians believed in and wanted to make new for us. Thanks to Masur and the orchestra for that belief; it paid off.