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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

The Cleveland Orchestra in New York (III): Birtwistle, Dutilleux, Beethoven, Radu Lupu (piano), The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 4 2005 (BH)


Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird (2004) (New York Premiere)
Dutilleux: Symphony No. 2, “Le Double” (1955-59)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor” (1809)


Programmatically speaking, this third in the Cleveland Orchestra’s concerts was perhaps the most interesting, with two unusual – and unusually well-performed – works, followed by a warhorse given a smashing cleansing. Sir Harrison was on hand (as he was for an excellent evening of his chamber work at Zankel earlier in the week) to receive cheers for Night’s Black Bird, first performed by the orchestra at the Lucerne Festival in August 2004. It is short, about twelve minutes, but its brief flight encompasses a highly expressive range of sounds from the enormous orchestra required. From a quiet, cloudy opening, the ensemble gradually begins to stir, growing more ominous and intense, climaxing in a violent passage in which the composer allows the power of an orchestra to reach maximum speed. Darkly colored string sounds return until the second apex is reached, marked by a clang on a metal tube (and special kudos to Cleveland’s percussion players, who had crucial jobs and aced them). The texture gradually recedes again, until just near the end, when a long shrieking note from a clarinet signals the close, and the ominous mood closes down and is swallowed up.


It is such a pleasure to hear a complex work like this done by a world-class orchestra, and the Cleveland’s bracing attentiveness to Birtwistle’s colors was a delight all in itself. If Welser-Möst is known for his Strauss, that luxuriousness was not out of place here, and one could visualize being in a dark forest, watching the sky pass over the moon. Sir Harrison arrived onstage, and modestly deflected the warm and effusive applause from the large audience.


The Dutilleux was completely new to me, and what an entertaining display it is, sort of like watching diaphanous fireworks, if that odd analogy serves. The title “Le Double” refers to twelve soloists assembled in the center of the orchestra – a chamber “double” of the larger ensemble. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dutilleux was reading Dostoevsky’s The Double at the same time the work was composed. The language of the piece reminded me somewhat of the chord progressions of Messiaen, combined with the rhythmic discipline of Hindemith, capped off with the colors of Ravel. It is a vivid piece of writing, with three movements in a traditional “fast-slow-fast” relationship, and in the Cleveland’s gorgeous hands, “Le Double” bloomed expansively while retaining its mysterious tone, exemplified by the final soft, ambiguous chords. Welser-Möst and the players conjured up a hothouse of sounds, notably including muted strings, accented by distinctive timbres on vibraphone and glockenspiel. Warm congratulations to the orchestra’s keyboard wizards, Joela Jones and Carolyn Gadiel Warner on harpsichord and celesta respectively, as well as Michael Sachs on trumpet, the latter having an exceptionally golden week here.


In Beethoven’s final piano concerto, the difference in sound, treatment and playing was immediately noticeable, quite different from the style of the first three concerti given on the previous nights. Of course, “It’s the music, silly,” but while the First was a model of fleetness and transparency, and the Second and Third revealed some unexpected good spirits, in the Fifth Welser-Möst and Lupu summoned a grand, romantic majesty. Radu Lupu was still relaxing back in his chair, but somehow the posture suited the composer’s more expansive vision. Allowing himself more pedal, Lupu’s sweeping entrances and exits still were anchored with meticulous fingerwork, control and the same rapport with the orchestra that has been a hallmark all week. Following the bravura of the first movement, the second seemed almost an oasis of flat-out gorgeous piano playing. The transition between the second and third movements had genuine surprise, and his cadenzas had the audience spellbound. In the final few bars, Lupu reached a dynamic level that was almost inaudible, yet still tense, until the orchestra crashed through with the stirring, noble ending. Again, it has been years since I’ve really enjoyed these concerti, and Welser-Möst, Lupu and these fabulous players can only be commended for presenting the cycle with such fastidious intelligence.


The audience, some perhaps not wanting the glowing evening to end, brought out the conductor and pianist six times. This has been an exceptionally fine week from this ensemble, which at least from the evidence here, seems to have finally found its stride with its energetic conductor. It is particularly refreshing to see, and hear, the difference in treatment for each of the program choices. The huge crowd onstage hammering out the Shostakovich hasn’t been seen since, but will probably reappear in the Berg Three Pieces on Saturday. From the changes in size in personnel used, to the chameleon-like stylistic changes (which a great orchestra can do) it is all so far spectacularly convincing.


Just one more concert to go, and the thought of my little Cleveland vacation finally ending is making me a bit sad.


Bruce Hodges






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