CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 23 APRIL 2009
Hector Berlioz: Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 25 in C major, K. 503. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43. (Mitsuko Uchida, p.; Colin Davis, cond.)
"Literature," Ezra Pound famously stated, "is news that remains news." In the case of Shakespeare, that's true in a completely literal sense. During the past week's run-up to the Bard's birthday, news headlines have included the unveiling of what might be the second known portrait of Shakespeare painted from life, Chicago's celebration of "Talk Like Shakespeare Day," and, most bizarrely, Justice John Paul Stevens weighing in on the side of those who think Shakespeare didn't author the Shakespeare plays.
Shakespeare also makes Northeast Ohio's news this weekend, when the Cleveland Orchestra plays the overture to Hector Berlioz' Beatrice and Benedict—an opera based on Much Ado About Nothing. It's led by one of the composer's great champions, the eminent British conductor Colin Davis. In interviews, Davis has stressed that Berlioz took inspiration from Shakespeare's uninhibitedness. In Davis' performance of the overture, this view doesn't manifest itself in energetic wildness, but in an attention to the music's mercurial temperament and unusual timbres.
Davis often draws a wind-heavy sound from the Orchestra in the overture, so that even when the violins are to the fore—as they are near the beginning of the Andante un poco sostenuto—you're acutely aware of the supporting roles played by horns and woodwinds. The emphasis continues in Davis' Sibelius Second, in which moments like the big brass chords preceding the return of the second movement's Andante sostenuto section are undeniably impressive.
And yet, despite the conductor's reputation as a Sibelius specialist, I was not bowled over by this Second Symphony. For me, Thursday's performance failed to make an argument for Davis' comparatively low-voltage interpretation of this emotionally fraught music. He was at his best in the opening movement, deftly managing transitions between the music's shifting moods. But subsequently Davis' reading sounded fatigued and unnecessarily discursive—not because his tempos were far from the norm, but because he only sporadically generated the intensity necessary to really hold this music together. The end of the fourth movement, with its radiant transition to D major, was beautiful, even sonically glorious. But in the best performances it's also profoundly cathartic, and that's what was missing here.
Nonetheless, Colin Davis' return to Severance after a quarter of a century remains newsworthy. There is, by contrast, nothing surprising about Mitsuko Uchida visiting Cleveland to play yet another Mozart concerto: No. 25, in C major. Uchida's playing Thursday was what you'd expect from her countless previous appearances: technically spectacular, with the delicacy of fine porcelain. But her approach to this concerto is a "twice-told tale," to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare's King John. It's little changed from when she recorded it two decades ago. Those who value live performance as a venue for exploration and experimentation will be disappointed. But I suspect that, for many of Uchida's ardent local admirers, no news will be good news.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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