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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

The Cleveland Orchestra in New York (I): Beethoven and Shostakovich, Radu Lupu (piano), The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 1 2005 (BH)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (ca. 1795)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905” (1956-57)

At the conclusion of the mammoth Shostakovich Eleventh, one could hear young guys in the back balcony of Carnegie Hall bellowing, “Cleve-land! Cleve-land!” as if it were Fan Appreciation Night at a sporting event. This much-admired orchestra is in town with the intent to dazzle, and in this first concert showed that it still has the ability to amaze.

The link in these four concerts is all five Beethoven piano concerti, performed with Radu Lupu, who on the first night turned out to be a superb match with Welser-Möst and the orchestra. Preferring a chair to a piano bench, and then slightly slouching back, Lupu has a performance posture that would probably have piano teachers rushing to admonish their charges never to play like this. (One friend suggested that Lupu looked like he could use a cigar and a brandy snifter.) Opening and closing my eyes periodically, I couldn’t quite reconcile Lupu’s vaguely slacker image with his super clean playing – but who the hell cares, in any case, given the delightful results. With a light but completely resonant tone, Lupu was completely synchronized with the conductor and the Cleveland musicians. All parties assembled had reached the same conclusions about tempi and phrasing, without any of the tug-of-wars that sometimes result between pianists and orchestras. (Consider Martha Argerich, whom I adore, despite the feeling that sometimes she seems to be flying off hurriedly in a “catch me if you can” sort of test with her partners.) But this fleet Beethoven First has been rippling through my brain, despite the fact that I’ve never really warmed up to any of these concerti.

One of the composer’s most dramatic and powerful works, the programmatic Shostakovich Eleventh depicts a brutal 1905 massacre in front of the Czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, where guards opened fire on hundreds of peaceful protesters. Using themes from workers’ movement songs that were familiar to ordinary citizens, Shostakovich welded them together in a dramatic and horrifying depiction of the tragedy, using a stirring mixture of tension, violence and sorrow, with the symphony ultimately lifting itself up to deliver a message of overwhelming strength.

The two criticisms that are often leveled at this work (and at others in the composer’s oeuvre) are “too bombastic” and “too little material spread too thinly,” and even while I can empathize, I still love the work. My first exposure was through Haitink’s recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in his 1980s cycle, and his slower tempi, to my ears, give the often crushingly weighty passages even more power. But most newcomers would probably prefer Welser-Möst’s swifter vision as heard here, which imparts more turbulence in the faster sections, and more tension in the slower ones. In the opening, misty string chords create a startlingly effective evocation of a “motionless Palace Square on an ice-cold January day,” and seemed to hover in the air as launched by the Clevelanders. Throughout the four movements, played without pause, the motif keeps reoccurring like a poignant sentinel. The second section, The Ninth of January, is a chilling depiction of the actual event, and I can’t say enough for the shrieking woodwinds, the brass section depicting the nightmare that the day must have been, and the entire orchestra locked in bone-chilling precision. A later highlight was the hauntingly well-done passage in the third section, called In Memoriam, with the violas enclosing the hall in a sorrowful aftermath. I was just knocked out by the fourth and final Tocsin, in which sweeping winds seemed to envelop the hall, gathering force with the ensemble in blistering form, with some gut-punching percussion effects. Near the end, a lonely solo for English horn appears like a defeated question mark, until a veritable torrent of gongs, bass drum, and rising strings converge in a relentless river of sound that leads to the symphony’s searing conclusion.

I came to this concert with a bit of anxiety about the state of this great orchestra, since shortly after the Welser-Möst marriage, the union seemed not to have quite gelled. It is a pleasure to report that now things seem to be off and running, although the sound of the orchestra is perhaps even more creamy and refined (OK, “Viennese” if you will) than it was under Dohnányi, and certainly under Szell. But this perhaps gradual stylistic change is not necessarily a bad thing. In the first few measures of the Shostakovich, I feared that the ghost of Johann Strauss, Jr. was going to somehow nudge the spirit of the indomitable Russian out of the queue, but only minutes later it was abundantly, thrillingly clear that this was not going to happen.


Bruce Hodges

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