CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 25 MAY 2006
György Kurtág: ...quasi una fantasia... Robert Schumann: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 54. Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin. (Mitsuko Uchida, p.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
"Simple in a highly complex way." Such was Ligeti's description of fellow Hungarian György Kurtág. And if you were wondering what he meant, you had only to sit through the first minutes of last evening's Cleveland Orchestra performance of ...quasi una fantasia... to find out. A moment's silence, and then you are surrounded by delicate wisps of sound. Onstage, Mitsuko Uchida plays bits of scales, quintuple piano. Elsewhere in the hall, the sounds of suspended cymbals, gongs, rattles hover at the edge of audibility, barely distinct from the background noise of the concert hall—coughs, wheezes, rustles of clothing. The individual components are things of primal simplicity. The resulting artifact is no more primitive in its implications than the cave paintings at Lascaux.
And, like cave paintings, ...quasi una fantasia... draws a large part of its energy from its deployment in space. Hear the work on CD and its middle movements sound congested. Hear it live, with clumps of instrumentalists deployed around the auditorium in accordance with Kurtág's instructions, and its intricate timbres are unveiled with marvelously evocative clarity.
It's undoubtedly the highlight of this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra program, though Mitsuko Uchida's eloquent performance of the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto isn't far behind. Her interpretation of the Schumann warhorse avoids theatrics. Toward the beginning of the first movement, when the task of introducing thematic material has passed to the first violins, Uchida underscores the strings with restrained lyricism, resisting the temptation to simmer and roil. Indeed, the instances when Schumann's writing seems to call for a bit of bluster are the only occasions when Uchida seems a bit out of her element. Her performance was neatly accompanied by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, particularly in the first-movement coda and in the nicely dovetailed treatments, by ensemble and soloist, of the third movement's second theme.
Welser-Möst conducted the program opener—Schumann's Symphony No. 4—with similar restraint, though I found the results less convincing. Perhaps with an eye toward highlighting the large-scale continuities of the symphony, Welser-Möst seemed to underplay some of its internal contrasts and to confine its more overtly dramatic gestures. The theme that opens the third movement, for example, seemed to lack robustness, the scherzo itself to be primarily a means of reaching the trio. One sensed a certain logic to the proceedings: the overall result was to weaken one's awareness of the alternation of scherzo and trio, to highlight the organic quality of Schumann's imagination. But I wonder whether the resulting sacrifices were worth it.
The drama which Welser-Möst withheld from the Schumann symphony seemed lavished instead on the program's close: a large-gestured performance of the suite from Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin. So it was that an evening that had already explored one paradox—complexity born of simplicity—ended with another: music that once struck some listeners as arid and abstract out-Romancing Schumann, the arch-Romantic.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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