CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 12/4/08
Franz Liszt: The Black Gondola (arr. John Adams). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488; Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491. (Jayce Ogren, cond.; Mitsuko Uchida, p. & cond.)
Mary McCarthy once observed that, when visiting Venice, you ought to resign yourself to the fact that everything that you think or say has been thought and said before, and by everyone from the greatest poets to, as she put it, "the tourist from Iowa who is alighting in the Piazzetta with his wife in her furpiece and jeweled pin." I've never been to Venice, and therefore haven't had the chance to try her theory by experiment. It seems to me that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley came pretty close to saying something original when he described Venice's gondolas as "moths of which a coffin might have been the chrysalis." But even that draws on a familiar observation: the gondola's seemingly genetic resemblance to a hearse.
In Franz Liszt's piano piece The Black Gondola, the Venetian boat becomes a hearse in an literal sense. The piece was inspired by a premonition of Richard Wagner's body being carried down the Grand Canal. Liszt produced no less than three versions of the work. And at Severance Hall this weekend, concertgoers hear yet another realization: an orchestration by composer John Adams.
It's led by Cleveland Orchestra assistant conductor Jayce Ogren in a version that sounds both less sumptuous and more modern than the conductor's own recording with the London Sinfonietta. Though Thursday's performance was not as crisp as that Nonesuch CD, the weekend's subsequent outings should offer ample opportunity for improvement.
Indeed, repetition seems an implicit component of this concert opener: in Adams' musical roots in the reiterations of minimalist music; in the plethora of Black Gondola versions; in the nature of the Venetian experience itself. But the theme of repetition becomes quite explicit in the program's remainder, which reprises Mitsuko Uchida's self-conducted Cleveland Orchestra performances of Mozart's Piano Concertos 23 and 24.
Despite its distinct virtues, the exercise seems prompted by the presence of the Decca record label's microphones rather than any sense of artistic necessity. Thursday's version of the C-minor concerto was generally more successful than that of its A-major predecessor. The intermittently bobbled momentum of the latter's outside movements suggested it might better have been performed with a separate conductor. But, more broadly speaking, the performances of these concertos were philosophically continuous with those in Uchida's earlier Cleveland Orchestra series and with her recordings of the complete cycle with the English Chamber Orchestra and Jeffrey Tate. Both of this week's concertos elicit Uchida's familiar intensity of focus, her fastidious shaping of even the smallest musical gestures, and more than a few examples of impressively delicate technique.
And yet, when approaching Mozart, Uchida seems always to be asking, "How can I refine what I've already done?"—never "Are there other interesting and worthwhile ways to approach this material?" Her Mozart, like Venice, is a magnificent thing. But you're left wondering, with Mary McCarthy, whether what's been said once is destined to be repeated forevermore.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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