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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

The Cleveland Orchestra in New York (II): Beethoven and Harris, Radu Lupu (piano), The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 2 2005 (BH)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19 (ca. 1792; rev. 1794-95, 1801)
Harris: Symphony No. 3 (1938)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 (ca. 1802-03)

The same zest that characterized the previous evening’s program spilled over into the second, with Radu Lupu again demonstrating his unusual body language that mysteriously works amazingly well for him. I don’t recall ever seeing a pianist play anything while semi-reclining (and I’m exaggerating) but it clearly works just fine. As before, in each of these Beethoven concerti not a note was out of place. What came across even more strongly than before is Lupu’s sense of humor, and his unerring ability to engage in almost comic dialogue with Welser-Möst and the orchestra. In the moments following some of the cadenzas or when just released from an especially tough workout, he would sometimes fold his arms and gaze back at the expert Cleveland players, enjoying them as much as they were no doubt zinging admiration back at him. This concert was just loads of fun. Particularly notable in the Second was the finale, with the strings vigorously punching out the irregular accents, strong and exciting, yet not overwhelming and out of Beethoven-ian balance. One could feel the joy in every bar.

The Third Concerto had even more sprightly spirits, with an enlarged orchestra leftover from the Harris (which unexpectedly served as an interesting bridge between the two). The unison opening could not have been more freshly delivered, given its over-familiarity. In the final movement, Lupu again mined it for more wit than one might expect it to reveal, and the coda in 6/8 meter sped off at a tempo that almost made me laugh. If it seemed like a small indulgence – and that’s a hesitant “if” – I hardly gave it a second thought when the conductor and orchestra had given such meticulously committed performances.

The Harris Third Symphony is perhaps one of the most well-known and most often played American works from its time period, but I confess that, with some exceptions here and there in the score, I have yet to warm up to its earnestness. I last heard it with Leonard Bernstein, in one of his final concerts with the New York Philharmonic in the late 1980s, coupled with the Third Symphonies of Aaron Copland and William Schuman. Even at that performance, with Bernstein at his most emotionally persuasive, the other two works seemed to overshadow the Harris. It is a sunny twenty minutes, filled with many finely conceived moments, such as the incredibly stirring opening for the cello section. The Cleveland cellos delivered one of the most beautifully played passages of the entire two nights so far, with the section playing on…and on…and on as a single voice. If I didn’t ultimately quite respond to Harris’ subsequent structural ideas, I’d bet that some in the audience did, and were incredibly grateful to hear the Third delivered with such a high level of polish, so kudos to Welser-Möst for presenting it. Similarly, friends had wildly varying opinions of the previous night’s Shostakovich, and most of the reservations were about the piece itself. But there can be no doubt that the Cleveland group is offering everything immersed in total and utter commitment, in effect saying, “We think this work should be presented, and in the best possible light.” I like a great orchestra with that attitude.

Bruce Hodges

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