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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979) [19:56]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 2 (1925) [34:18]
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, 17 & 18 January 2020, Knight Concert Hall, Miami (Prokofiev); 15-17 October 2020, Severance Hall, Cleveland (Schnittke)

The Cleveland Orchestra is back with a new release on their in-house label, continuing their explorations with customary panache. The two featured works receive important performances which will help boost both pieces.
Alfred Schnittke's work is still a recent enough phenomenon that we're still sorting through a large and impressive body of compositions. The Concerto for Piano and Strings is one that is beginning to float to the top of the pile. As serialism and minimalism sink back into the sea of past fads, Schnittke's refusal to bind himself to any single esthetic looks more and more astute. Modern, tonal, atonal, jazz, minimalism, neo-romanticism are just a few of the descriptions that could be applied to passages in this work, which nonetheless works on its own terms as a unified piece.
It starts innocently enough, with a casual gesture of four notes, one pair falling, the other rising back up somewhat. Then with a harmonic shift that casts shadows, the gesture is repeated, with some of the notes stretching slightly deeper. And again. Quietly, but unceasingly, the floor keeps dropping out from beneath you.
Schnittke makes use of an Alberti bass figure, the gently rocking accompaniment often found in Mozart’s music, but then Schnittke does the same sinking harmonic side-shift to warp it, too. Textures darken and clot, and within a minute or so of the opening, the pianist is playing tone clusters low on the keyboard. From tonal to atonal, limpid textures to tangled knots, Schnittke goes everywhere. The loneliness and isolation of the opening pages builds in tension to a frenetic, kinetic outburst, followed by passages where the strings creep into quarter tones, threatening to dissolve reality itself. This is haunted and haunting music like few other works I know.

At one point, there is even a passage of warped cocktail piano jazz accompanied by plucked double bass, but this too gets warped out of shape as the music twists. After a short but demonic piano cadenza, the music attempts to achieve catharsis with a climax quoting the Adagio of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, only here those rich major chords are contaminated with minor thirds, pulling the listener up and down at the same time.

After the attempted catharsis misfires, the concerto settles back into its opening gestures with a nightmarish realization that there is no escape, and the quiet coda is as devastating an expression of quiet horror as I have ever heard. This concerto is a flat-out masterpiece, and we have Yefim Bronfman to thank for its presence here. He took advantage of the enforced hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic to learn the piece, and leapt at the opportunity to play it with the Cleveland Orchestra when they began streaming socially-distanced concerts, with the players spread across the stage. Bronfman plays it like a man possessed. From the work’s most thoughtful moments to waves of sound that ring the rafters, Bronfman is ferociously focused and utterly at the height of his powers. This piece is essential, and this performance is definitive.
I remember with amusement the first time I heard the opening movement of Prokofiev's Second Symphony. It was on a less-than-pristine copy of a cheaply pressed LP of a noisy Soviet-era recording. I swore after that abrasive encounter I'd never listen to the piece again. Of course, I've yielded over the years, and further exploration proves that the work has many attractive moments, even if its sum total might not place it among Prokofiev's finest works.
That first movement remains daunting, an example of the 1920s fad for music that evoked machinery, although conductor Franz Welser-Möst wonders in the notes to this release if the shadow of the recently ended world war had something to do with it as well. An aggressive performance recorded in less-than-ideal sound, such as Neeme Järvi's vigorous 1984 version with the Scottish National Orchestra, can be off-putting. The echoey and harsh early digital sound of that recording doesn't make for pleasant listening. And there is serious analog overload in the even more aggressive 1968 recording that Erich Leinsdorf did with the Boston Symphony. Boston's Symphony Hall is reverberant, too, though that issue was largely mitigated by close microphone placement, leading to tape saturation and distortion that remastering can only go so far to fix.
The work fared better in 1995, when Naxos recorded Theodore Kuchar with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in sound that was better able to handle Prokofiev's wild range, though Kuchar's spacious approach is an outlier among interpretations. Better yet was Naxos' sound for Marin Alsop with the São Paulo Symphony in 2014, an impressive showing by a South American orchestra that is increasingly making its presence known in the world market (review).
But in many ways, all of these fine performances yield to this new live recording by the Cleveland Orchestra. Caught live in the Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, just before the onset of the world Covid pandemic in 2020, this recording extends the work's interpretive envelope in subtle yet telling ways. While conductor Franz Welser-Möst pulls no punches, he also delves deeper into the quiet parts of the work, proving that there's more of interest here than just the obvious noise-thrills of the opening. And even within those aggressive moments, Welser-Möst has an ability to show a passage in different light. For instance, not long after the opening brass broadsides, there is a passage where piano and plucked upper strings play together. To keep those precise sounds aligned, most conductors emphasize the angularity of the passage. The angularity is obvious enough, so here Welser-Möst resists brow-beating the listener and gives the passage a more supple feel, which at a swift tempo becomes witty, even a touch comic, like the slightly sped-up movement of 1920s news reels. With just such a subtle shift in emphasis, Welser-Möst begins opening up the emotional range of the work, and that's only one of many such tweaks in this performance.
Where Leinsdorf and Järvi treat the theme of the long second movement as a moment of brief respite before the return to battle, Welser-Möst actually reaches into it, caressing the phrases and finding a songful repose to counter-balance the opening movement. Alsop is similarly gentle, though without the same intensity, and the São Paulo strings can't match the Clevelanders for stunning depth of sound, even at a low volume.
While at first glance it might not seem like the two pieces on this disc connect, there is actually a vivid connection point in the fourth variation in the second movement of the Prokofiev. The accompanying Alberti bass figure that Prokofiev uses halfway through the variation is almost identical to the one in the Schnittke concerto. The connection feels like a call-back to the Schnittke, making the disc good for continuous listening.
Though Welser-Möst is at times spacious in the quieter parts of the symphony, in the fourth variation, marked larghetto, he keeps the tension going. This emphasizes the restlessness of the motif. Kuchar, by contrast, slows to almost half Welser-Möst's speed, going for the visionary but losing focus in the process. The two conductors agree, though, on taking the final variation more broadly than the other conductors, allowing the ending reprise of the theme to pause, transfixed, in an open-ended conclusion.
The Knight Concert Hall in Miami is a venue that the Cleveland Orchestra has often played residencies in, and the recording team has clearly mastered its acoustic. It doesn't have quite the glow of their hall in Cleveland, but it balances clarity and color effectively, with little extraneous audience noise. The Schnittke was recorded in Cleveland before a small, invited audience, during one of the orchestra's streamed concerts on the Adella platform during the pandemic hiatus. The hall, since renamed the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Hall at Severance Music Center, has the familiar warmth and clarity from previous recordings in this series. The recording places Yefim Bronfman's piano front and center, capturing an intense dynamic range, suitable for such a dramatic work.
What is interesting is the slow evolution of sound in Severance. Recordings from its earlier years suffered from a lack of atmosphere. Music director George Szell improved the sound of the hall by adding an enclosed shell on the stage in the 1950s, though its mid-twentieth century modernism clashed visually. For the millennium, a new shell was built, more closely matching the art deco style of the hall itself. The new shell's lively surfaces proceed to break-up and mix sound more than the Szell shell did, effectively increasing both reverberation time and bass response of the hall. The difference is audible in recordings from Severance before and after the new stage. Additionally, in recent years, the orchestra's own recordings have developed from the more distant pickups used in the past, to more closely miked productions. The older approach matched the European style of the mid-twentieth century, and helped pick up what resonance there was. But now that the hall itself sounds better, the decision to move the microphones in closer increases the color of the recordings, moving the TCO productions toward a classic American sound, more like RCA's Living Stereo or Mercury's Living Presence.
The Schnittke is essential, and the Prokofiev is another fine installment of Welser-Möst's exploration of Prokofiev. The release is available as a physical disc or download. The disc is a hybrid SACD, and the packaging is deluxe, with an extensive, well-illustrated book. Like the previous release from the TCO, it is in a non-standard size with the disc included inside the book cover. The only things I dislike about the packaging are the lack of identification of the works on the book spine (which just says “The Cleveland Orchestra”) and the soft plastic spindle for the disc, which may not hold up well over years of usage. But the music is the key thing, and this is a commandingly important release.

Mark S Jordan

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