CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 24 NOVEMBER 2006
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 ("Scottish"). Serge Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser—Overture. (Stephen Hough, p.; Andrew Grams, cond.)
His name is a byword for cruelty. He had his own mother killed and claimed she had committed suicide. He tried to strangle his first wife, Octavia, then had her banished and, in time, executed. He ordered the doctors tending his aunt to give her a fatal overdose of purgatives. And yet, for some individuals, the clearest sign of the emperor Nero's sadism might be that late in his life he vowed that, if he held on to his power, he'd mark the occasion by giving a public recital on the bagpipe.
It's an instrument people either love or hate. Felix Mendelssohn was one of the few to react with mixed feelings. "Anything but national music!" he once exclaimed; and yet listeners have heard the echoes of bagpipes in the so-called "Scottish" symphony which opens this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts.
The symphony's led by Assistant Conductor Andrew Grams, who paces the opening all too lethargically. Mendelssohn marks it "Andante con moto," but there was little sense of motion here. It was a problem that recurred in Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture, which concluded the concert. For a moment, just before the beginning of the Overture's Allegro section, I suspected the orchestra might lose steam altogether and we would get to go home early. Fortunately, the pacing problems in the Mendelssohn were mostly resolved by the time we reached the Assai animato transition in the first movement. More consistently problematic was a tendency to emphasize loudness over clarity of texture, largely sacrificing some attractive details. But Grams has a much stronger and more secure rhythmic instinct than former Assistant Conductors James Gaffigan and Steven Smith. And in the final analysis this wasn't a bad version of this symphony—just not a great one.
Mind you, it couldn't help but suffer by comparison with pianist Stephen Hough's exhilarating rendition of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Yes, yes, it's easy to feel blasé about this frequently heard work, but Hough reinvigorates the old warhorse. One is conscious less of the work's large-scale structure than of Hough's—and by extension Rachmaninoff's—quicksilver flow of ideas. At times, as in variations 6 and 15, Hough's playing sounds almost jazzy. In his treatment of the famous variation 18, he is uncommonly eloquent. And when the music calls for it—as in the burly chords of variation 14 or the rapid-fire triplets of variations 19 and 21—Hough's technique is nothing short of phenomenal.
A spectacular performance, this, and a nice centerpiece to a program unlikely to offend the sensibilities of Thanksgiving guests treated to a Severance Hall visit. There are no twelve-tone bogeymen here...no wailing ondes martenot...no prepared pianos...and, despite that "Scottish" moniker, no bagpipes. After all, an old joke lets us know the reason bagpipers march while they play. They're trying to get away from all the noise.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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