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The Cleveland Orchestra in New York: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), The Cleveland Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 4-5.2.2011 (BH)

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-894)

Toshio Hosokawa: Woven Dreams (2009, New York premiere)

R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1897-1898)


Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser (1842-1845)

Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor (1841-1845)

Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936)


A recent piece by Toshio Hosokawa turned out to be one of the surprise hits of this pair of Carnegie Hall concerts with Franz Welser-Möst and the peerless Cleveland Orchestra, showing anew that the ensemble remains one of the finest in the world. Hosokawa wrote Woven Dreams in response to a deeply personal image of being in his mother’s womb. In his words: “The journey of no return begins from the deep, heavenly euphoria in the womb toward the exit, with the heartbeat heard from a distance, and waves and a storm like a sea of amniotic fluid.” Hosokawa begins with a soft, mystic B-flat that drones through the orchestra, evolving into slow-moving plates of sound that appear, then crest and ultimately recede back into the opening quietude.


The orchestra’s translation of Hosokawa’s delicate palette was magical; friends in the top balcony (where the sound is excellent) said some people weren’t even sure when the piece began—the opening was so quiet. And the friend with me—one not normally inclined toward contemporary scores—was enchanted. Enchantment began the program, as well, with a gossamer, rapturous reading of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. If others wished for more haze, I was enthralled by the conductor’s clarity.


But for others, the athletic, refined reading of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben was the evening’s pinnacle, which played to the strengths of all onstage. An expansive opening (“The Hero”), with strings totally secure at the top of the stave, was followed by chirping winds merrily prattling away (“The Hero’s Adversaries”), and disarmingly graceful solos by concertmaster William Preucil. At times the strings leaped forward out of their chairs in unison, during the violence of “The Hero’s Battlefield,” with the percussion section as the taut spine. And in the calm afterward, Welser-Möst allowed Strauss’s silences to speak, while maintaining momentum—the musicians throwing their all into the exquisite final pages. And for an unusual encore, the conductor unfurled one of the orchestral interludes from Strauss’s Intermezzo, Träumerei am Kamin, with the leisurely flow of a Delius tone poem.


The second night opened with Wagner—a sinewy Tannhäuser Overture with bombast kept at bay, followed by a curious Schumann Piano Concerto with the great Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I don’t know quite what to make of this performance, which was solid all around—Aimard played with his customary meticulousness, the orchestra sounded sumptuous—yet somehow one more ounce of pizzazz seemed needed to make it really come alive. The pianist sounded slightly recessed in the orchestral texture, and I wouldn’t have minded even more speed in the final movement.


But the closing Bartók Music for Strings and Percussion and Celesta showed the ensemble at its most dramatic. Impossibly smooth strings in the opening “Andante tranquillo” were almost too precise. The second movement had impressive unanimity, and I was perfectly happy with Welser-Möst emphasizing the composer’s colors, rather than his rhythmic brilliance, perhaps more in line with Charles Dutoit. The “Adagio” climaxed with a fabulous swarming cloud of celesta and piano—hysteria and claustrophobia made audible—and the finale returned to the zest of the opening, with every player adding to the precise, graceful proportion of the whole.


Bruce Hodges


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