CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 16 FEBRUARY 2006
Samuel Barber: Toccata festiva, Op. 36; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38. Jean Sibelius: Scénes historiques, Op. 25—Scena; Scénes historiques, Op. 66—La Chasse; Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, op. 82. (Joela Jones, o.; Garrick Ohlsson, p.; Jahja Ling, cond.)
When Jean Sibelius was still a student, he received a surprise visit from an uncle who was eager to see how his nephew was getting along with his required coursework. The Nordic history book sitting open on Sibelius' desk must have seemed, at first glance, a promising sign, but closer examination told a different story. Sibelius had, to be sure, intended to return to the volume; but month after month it sat open at the same point, until, by the time of the uncle's visit, the page had turned a telltale shade of yellow. It was a surprising start for a composer whose life and works seem so inseparable from a particular phase of Finnish history.
The relationship sits close to the surface in works like Sibelius' two sets of Scénes historiques, or Historic Scenes. A pair of excerpts from the suites opened conductor Jahja Ling's Thursday evening Cleveland Orchestra program at Severance Hall. Ling had programmed the first piece, "The Chase," as part of last summer's Blossom Festival, and July's performance seemed, insofar as I remember, a bit crisper than the Severance version. The other selection, titled simply "Scena," received a tidier, if slightly ponderous, performance. Ling's reading of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony was more rewarding. His Finale was a little short on grandeur, but he managed the pace and the sometimes folksy textures of the preceding slow movement with considerable assurance.
The music of Samuel Barber made up the other half of the program. Garrick Ohlsson's version of the Barber Piano Concerto was not, by and large, a thing of great subtlety, but the effect may have been intentional. Ohlsson focused on the score's big effects—both its gargantuan Romantic gestures and its sometimes spiky dissonances. Even amid the intimacies of the second movement, Ohlsson was not afraid to sound, at times, distinctly percussive. Pianist John Browning, for whom the work was written, did a better job of emphasizing the work's unity. But Ohlsson's approach, forcing the Romantic Barber and the modern Barber to stand eyeball to eyeball, had its own rewards.
Barber's Toccata festiva, a showpiece for organ and orchestra, completed Ling's program. Its dramatic impact would have been greater had Severance's often effete sounding organ not been swamped by the orchestra in important passages. Keyboardist Joela Jones, sounding far less comfortable at the organ than she does at the piano, made a valiant stab at the work's showy pedal cadenza—though if you've heard, say, the Thomas Trotter recording of the work you might agree that Barber's solo can sound more musically convincing. Here, it seemed simply overlong—an extended gimmick. In outstaying its welcome, it recalled the poet Jules Laforgue's description of that bane of Sibelius' student years. "History," wrote Laforgue, "is a gaudy nightmare that doesn't suspect that the best jokes are also the shortest."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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