CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 23 FEBRUARY 2006
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes—Four Sea Interludes. Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 1, op. 107 in E-flat major. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44. (Clemens Hagen, vc.; Osmo Vänskä, cond.)
Back in the days of the Cold War, some wag once noted that both the American and Soviet constitutions guaranteed freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate. The difference was that the American constitution also guaranteed your freedom after the demonstrations and the speeches. So it was that some of the political commentary of the time was, of necessity, clandestine. The final movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, for example, parodies one of Stalin's favorite folksongs, but the joke is so well disguised that the work's dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, needed the composer to point it out to him.
Clemens Hagen takes over the solo role for this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts, which also bring the Minnesota Orchestra's Music Director Osmo Vänskä to town. Vänskä is a conductor of big, bold musical gestures, and the contrast with Hagen could not be more complete. Hagen's approach to the Shostakovich concerto is plainspoken and parsimonious. Flamboyance seems to have no place in his vocabulary. In the work's searchingly intimate third movement—an extended solo cadenza—pizzicato interjections are not vehicles for virtuosic display, but are seamlessly integrated into the music's emotional curve. Behind Hagen, however, Vänskä is not afraid to emphasize the accompaniment's vivid, sometimes frighteningly lurid colors. The combination invites allegorical interpretation: the plight of an ordinary man, perhaps, pitted against a kaleidoscopically malevolent bureaucracy. But the music's the thing; and Thursday evening's performance was simultaneously thoughtful and impassioned.
Vänskä's focus on orchestral shading nearly ran away with him during the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. The second interlude, "Sunday Morning," seemed particularly rhythmically muddy. But in the Technicolor sound world of Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony Vänskä seemed as much at home as a Tin Man in Oz. He elicited particularly pungent sounds from the orchestra in some of the work's smaller scale passages: a third-movement exchange featuring bassoon and trumpets, for example, and a couple of bars in the second scored for trumpet, percussion, celesta, and harp. This was a well-shaped, striking, and energetic reading of what, to my mind, is the most interesting of the Rachmaninoff symphonies.
Mind you, the work earned only a lukewarm reception at its premiere. But by then Rachmaninoff had long been gone from the Soviet Union, and criticism was no longer a matter of life and death. Of course, even in modern Russia, your opinions can put you at risk. Just last month, the mayor of Moscow decided his emergency forces faced too much uncertainty preparing for the capricious winter weather. How to solve the problem? Easy, suggested the mayor: when the weather forecasters are wrong, you simply sock them with a fine.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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