CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 19 FEBRUARY 2009
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini—Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32. Igor Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D major. Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70. (Gil Shaham, v.; Kirill Petrenko, cond.)
Closely Watched Trains is the name of a famous Czech novella. But it would also serve nicely as the title for a biography of Antonín Dvorák.
Dvorák loved watching trains. According to one story—which circulates in several different variants—Josef Suk, then engaged to Dvorák's daughter, arrived back in Prague from a visit to his hometown. He dutifully reported to Dvorák the times at which the train had reached each station. "And," he proudly added, "the number of the train was 10726." Dvorák protested. 10726 was the number of the locomotive, he explained: the train was number 187. "And that," he exclaimed to his daughter, "is the man you want to marry!"
It was while he was watching a train pull into the station that Dvorák invented the opening theme of his Seventh Symphony—a work which is featured on this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts. It's led by guest conductor Kirill Petrenko, who might be finding February in Cleveland downright balmy. He was born in Omsk, where the current overnight low, according to weather.com, is 22 below. But there was nothing the least bit chilly about Petrenko's version of the Dvorák symphony. It was marked by large, passionate musical gestures that stopped short of being extravagant. Petrenko's control of tempo was masterful—particularly in the symphony's slow movement, which covered a wide variety of emotional terrain without any sense that its transitions were contrived or forced. Petrenko's sumptuous Dvorák Seventh has an air of old-fashioned romanticism, but it's a superb example of its kind.
I had a more ambivalent reaction to Gil Shaham's reading of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Shaham imbues the work with plenty of personality, and his colorful playing is enhanced by his willingness to push his violin's tone past the boundaries of conventional prettiness. So what was amiss? Well, the first movement tempo, for one. Hilary Hahn observed in the notes to her 2001 recording of the concerto that hardly anyone plays the opening Toccata at Stravinsky's marked speed. And, indeed, Shaham took maybe twenty percent longer than Hahn to traverse the same movement. But at the slower tempo the music lost its sense of continuity and Shaham's variegated inflections seemed detached from one another. In the end, Shaham's Stravinsky made for twenty minutes of impressive playing and lively listening. But if you were headed to your desert island, this probably isn't the version you'd feel compelled to bring along.
The program was completed by Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini. And though Petrenko led an excellent performance of Tchaikovsky's tone poem—with a triple-forte conclusion that left your ears ringing—it didn't change my feeling that the piece could be shortened by half without much loss. Tchaikovsky could have learned something from Dante, who recounted how Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta fell in love while reading an Arthurian romance. Dante's Francesca indicates what followed in a single line of admirable economy: "That day we read no more."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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