CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 2/22/08
Georg Philipp Telemann: Suite in B-flat Major from Tafelmusik III. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Flute Concerto in A Major, H. 438, Wq. 168. Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G Major ("Surprise"). (Joshua Smith, f.; Ton Koopman, cond.)
"It's best to not isolate a piece of art," said Ton Koopman in a 1996 interview for Billboard magazine. He went on to argue that, to really understand musical works, you had to consider them in their historical and architectural and artistic context—to plunge into the milieu in which they were created. "That's why, if given the chance," he added, "I always love to record sacred music in an old church."
Practicality edges in where ideals cannot tread. This weekend finds Ton Koopman conducting eighteenth-century music with a modern orchestra amid Art Deco ornamentation. And yes, there's a substantial gap between listening to selections from Telemann's Tafelmusik as they were intended—background music at a feast—and hearing the same music at Severance Hall, where your smuggled-in bucket of chicken will likely arouse the ushers' fury. As Mick Jagger said, you can't always get what you want.
What you do get is a rough parallel to last February's Cleveland Orchestra program conducted by early-music specialist Nicholas McGegan. But Koopman does much a better job than McGegan at managing the orchestra's sound. Even when things are at an elevated risk of becoming clotted—in the second variation of the Andante of Haydn's Symphony No. 94, for example—Koopman keeps the instrumental textures nicely lucid.
But that's not to suggest that all was well at Thursday's concert. Indeed, the opening Lentement from the third volume of Telemann's Tafelmusik might have benefited from a bit of sonic gauze: the ensemble's transparency highlighted lapses in precision and a palpable awkwardness working in a historically-informed style. Subsequent movements were often crisper, but violin solos were sometimes wooden and the Production's Conclusion sounded rhythmically garbled. Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony was more cleanly performed, but it reminded me, in some respects, of Koopman's organ recordings: sometimes winningly lively, sometimes maddeningly eccentric, and often both at once.
The most rewarding component of Thursday's program was Principal Flutist Joshua Smith's rendition of C.P.E. Bach's A-major Flute Concerto. There was a sense of wistfulness to this interpretation—in part the product of an attractive-sounding wooden flute, but also the consequence of a meditative quality in Smith's solo playing. His flute didn't seem to lead the orchestra, but to reflect on its activities. The result, particularly in the work's Largo, was a reading of poise, thoughtfulness, and eloquence.
To be sure, some potential ticket-buyers—instinctively averse to the bright sound of the modern concert flute—might be put off by the presence of a flute concerto on this weekend's program. (Why did the chicken cross the road? asks a musicians' joke. To get away from the flute recital.) But in this case, Joshua Smith's performance is good enough to lure the proverbial chicken back—even if the concert is, as far as historical authenticity goes, neither fish nor fowl.
Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.