CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 11/13/08
Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102 ("Double"). Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 ("Eroica"). (William Preucil, v.; Desmond Hoebig, vc.; Herbert Blomstedt, cond.)
It's hard to imagine the modern politician without spin doctors: those men and women who make blunders look like shrewd strategic moves and catastrophes appear resounding triumphs. At one time folks did the job for themselves. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte. In May 1799 he brought a defeated and plague-ridden army back to Egypt from the failed siege of Acre. The official bulletin he dictated read: "I have razed the palace of the Djezzar and the ramparts of Acre—not a stone remains upon another." When his secretary objected to this blatant falsehood, Napoleon snapped back: "My dear fellow, you are a simpleton. You do not understand this business."
Apparently Napoleon was right. By the end of the year, he was First Consul of France. And before long he inspired the composition of one of Beethoven's most important works: the Third Symphony, which the Cleveland Orchestra performs at this weekend's concerts.
Guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt's decades of experience are evident in his technical control and fine ear for orchestral balances. But his "Eroica" is in many respects rather old-fashioned. Those convinced by the Beethoven performances of such conductors as Roger Norrington, David Zinman and Benjamin Zander are likely to find the leisurely tempos of the first two movements particularly offputting. And some passages, such as the bridge between the first-movement exposition and development, do tend to drag when they're paced well shy of Beethoven's metronome markings. On the other hand, Blomstedt leaves himself plenty of room to build satisfying climaxes: in the second movement's trio section, for example, and the fugal passage that follows. Blomstedt is at his best, I think, delineating the quick-changing tempers of Beethoven's finale: the effortless elegance of the first variation, the vivacity of the third, the soldierly vigor of the sixth.
The "Eroica" is preceded on the program by the Brahms Double Concerto. And though "Soloist from the Orchestra" evenings can, in my experience, be a mixed bag, violinist William Preucil and cellist Desmond Hoebig acquit themselves very well in the lead roles. The weakest characteristic of the performance might be the mismatch between the spindly tone of Preucil's violin and Hoebig's robust cello. When a line passes from one soloist to another with less than pinpoint accuracy, the disproportion emphasizes the discontinuity. Nonetheless this is one of the best performances I've heard from Cleveland's departing principal cellist. Blomstedt's assertive, emotionally poised accompaniment serves Brahms' concerto as well as it does the finale of the "Eroica."
Tom Wolfe has written that "Napoleon wanted to turn Paris into Rome under the Caesars, only with louder music and more marble." And this weekend's program might best be regarded in the same way you'd consider, say, the Arc de Triomphe, which Napoleon commissioned following his victory at Austerlitz. It's unlikely to prompt any reevaluation of your thinking. It is, instead, an impressively solid monument that harks back to a vanishing world.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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