CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 12 FEBRUARY 2009
Samuel Barber: Overture to The School for Scandal. Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 77. Piotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. (Nikolaj Znaider, v.; Pinchas Steinberg, cond.)
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The School for Scandal was the 1770s equivalent of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—a crowd-pleasing comedy custom-tailored for an all-star cast. Horace Walpole, remembered today as the author of The Castle of Otranto, judged The School for Scandal "a marvellous resurrection of the stage." But when Walpole read the play, a few years after he had seen it, he found that it didn't live up to what he had experienced at London's Drury Lane Theatre. "It is rapid and lively," he wrote in 1780, "but is far from containing the wit I expected from seeing it acted."
But if Sheridan's masterwork lost something between stage and page, plenty of sparkle remained to be transmuted into Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal, written when Barber had just entered his twenties. Guest conductor Pinchas Steinberg led a lively, entertaining version of Barber's Overture at Thursday's Cleveland Orchestra concert, though he encouraged some very loud brass playing that, at a couple of key points, overwhelmed important lines in the strings.
The same was true in the raucous finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. But, given the fact that the performance of the symphony had taken a couple movements to really get going, one hesitates to complain. In the first movement, for example, many conductors have already generated a substantial amount of tension by the point in the exposition at which the woodwinds take over the principal theme. But at Thursday's concert the passage sounded completely listless.
Nikolaj Znaider's version of the Brahms Violin Concerto was much more interesting than Steinberg's slow-starting Tchaikovsky. If you've got a hot Valentine's date to take to Severance Hall, this is the perfect performance to hear. Znaider's Brahms is unabashedly romantic. Indeed, he wallows a bit in the concerto's slow sections, and his playing is sometimes a little affected. What saves his interpretation from sappiness is the warm, robust tone he gets from his instrument—a 1741 Guarneri del Gesù. Its sound projected so well to my seat in the hall that it almost seemed an invisible audio engineer was doing a bit of tweaking. And Znaider plays with enough variety in tone and phrasing that, even when his tempos get a little sluggish, the ear is never bored.
It's a fine performance—but the kind of fine performance that's best experienced live. With repeated hearings, its voluptuousness would probably begin to wear. In time, one might bestow on Znaider's interpretation the same judgment that Miss Verjuice, in The School for Scandal, passes on her fellow gossip-monger Mrs. Clackit: "She generally designs well, has a free tongue and a bold invention—but [the] colouring is too dark and [the] outline often extravagant."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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