CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 26 FEBRUARY 2009
Leos Janácek: Taras Bulba—Rhapsody for Orchestra. Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15; Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92. (Louis Lortie, p.; Kurt Masur, cond.)
A Considered Opinions quiz. Name a movie in which Yul Brynner appeared with a full head of hair. There are more correct answers than you might guess: Port of New York, The Buccaneer, Solomon and Sheba, The Sound and the Fury. The true Yul Brynner maven might urge you to add Taras Bulba to the list. Granted, the hair only remains for about two minutes of that movie—but those two minutes cover years of the title character's life.
Brynner didn't much like the final cut of Taras Bulba, which privileged action at the expense of dialogue and seemed, in the actor's phrase, "an equestrian melodrama." Whether he might have preferred Leos Janácek's orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba I don't know. But Cleveland Orchestra concertgoers have the opportunity this weekend to judge whether Janácek's music is a more subtle adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's famous novella than the 1962 film.
Janácek's rhapsody seems tricky music to conduct: full of tempo and mood changes that follow one another with surprising quickness. Guest conductor Kurt Masur keeps the pacing and atmosphere within a relatively narrow range, so that long sequences of musical events maintain their continuity. You do lose a certain amount of color in Masur's treatment, though. And that effect's magnified by the disappointing contributions of the Severance Hall organ. The organ's entrance in the Coda of "The Death and Prophecy of Taras Bulba" can be quite dramatic. But here, the sound of the instrument is so buried in the orchestral texture that you're barely aware it's there until the final few bars, when it at last manages some robust-sounding chords. Masur's Taras Bulba is enjoyable, but it sounds quite tame compared to the best recordings.
Louis Lortie joined Masur and the orchestra for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. And at Thursday night's concert he proved a challenging pianist to get a handle on. In the work's opening movement he was a musician of remarkable discipline, firing off runs of sixteenth notes with superb clarity. In the Largo he was a little too romantic for his own good, occasionally lingering on solo phrases to the point of self-indulgence. Then, in the concluding Rondo, he played with a loose limbed spontaneity that was at times almost jazzy. Lortie's almost seemed a composite performance—but at least two of the three pianists were well worth hearing.
Masur concluded the program with that perennial favorite, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The first two movements were particularly nicely shaped, executed at comfortably brisk tempos. But Masur's audience-pleasing account of the fourth—like many conductors'—sounded like a Presto rather than the Allegro con brio Beethoven actually indicates. "Faster, faster!" shouts a young dancer to a band of musicians in Gogol's Taras Bulba. Whether that's as good advice for performing Beethoven's Finale as it is for playing Cossack dances remains, I think, open to question.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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