CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF 9/25/08
George Benjamin: Duet for Piano and Orchestra. Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major. (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, p.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
In 1867, Anton Bruckner suffered a mental breakdown. One symptom of his illness was arithmania—an obsession with numbers. Bruckner suddenly found himself compelled to count things: the leaves on a tree, the windows in the town, the stars in the night sky. A certain Mrs. Mayfeld, who was staying at the spa where Bruckner recuperated, had to give up wearing one of her dresses. It had a spotted pattern, and if Bruckner saw it he had to start counting the dots.
It's a good thing the fragile composer couldn't have foreseen some of the age related numbers associated with this year's Cleveland Orchestra season opener. Franz Welser-Möst's program pairs Bruckner's music with that of the contemporary British composer George Benjamin. At the time of his breakdown, Bruckner was already in his early forties: twenty-five years above the age at which Benjamin first seized the classical spotlight with his Piano Sonata. Bruckner, by contrast, still had almost eighteen more years to wait before his first big international hit: the Seventh Symphony, which constitutes the second half of the evening's program.
Benjamin is represented by the U.S. premiere of his Duet for Piano and Orchestra. And it would be difficult to find a more sympathetic soloist than Pierre Laurent-Aimard. The Duet is a striking piece: at once a summation of Benjamin's earlier work and a step toward something new. The almost jazzy opening harks back to the rhythmic energy of Sudden Time, perhaps even to the opening movement of the Piano Sonata. The meditative central section recalls the stark, bleak beauty of A Mind of Winter and Upon Silence. But there's something in the idiom of Duet that sets it altogether apart from those compositions: a freshness and accessibility that ought to recommend the work to even casual listeners.
Bruckner's symphonies, far from being jazzy, have often been described as "cathedrals in sound." And in some conductors' hands, the first and second themes of the Seventh Symphony's opening movement are raised slowly into place like great columns, the conductor pulling back on anchoring ropes lest the structures topple in the wrong direction. But you can measure the success of Franz Welser-Möst's Seventh by the degree to which it makes you question the aptness of architectural metaphors. At Thursday evening's concert, those same themes sounded organic rather than tectonic—and the same movement's closing group churned with a kinetic energy that even Frank Gehry couldn't evoke.
So...I'll subtract a quarter of a point for occasional technical imperfections, a quarter of a point for fleeting moments of rhythmic blurriness in the Scherzo...and I'll remain neutral on Welser-Möst reinserting the second-movement cymbal crash in the Haas edition. Four and a half stars out of five. That seems about right, and should provide a handy summation for listeners who, like Bruckner, are of a mathematical bent. After all, as someone once observed, there are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count…and those who can't.
Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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