CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 8 OCTOBER 2009
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op, 58. Franz Liszt: A Faust Symphony in Three Character Pictures (Original Orchestral Version, 1854). (Mitsuko Uchida, p.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
Mere genius could not ward off that peculiar nineteenth-century affliction which poet Heinrich Heine dubbed "Lisztomania." An 1854 diary, preserved in the Yale library, reads: "Then came the thing I had longed for—Liszt's playing. I sat near him so I could see both his hands and face. For the first time in my life I beheld real inspiration—for the first time I heard the true tones of the piano." Those aren't the words of the average besotted groupie, but of Marian Evans-later to become known as George Eliot. She had encountered Franz Liszt in Weimar, which she visited on a not-quite-honeymoon with her not-quite-husband, George Henry Lewes.
Both romance and research were behind the trip. Lewes was at work on a biography of one of Weimar's most famous residents: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. And Lewes' and Evans' enthusiasm for Goethe prompted Liszt to write his long-contemplated Faust Symphony—music that makes a rare concert-hall appearance at Severance Hall this weekend, albeit without its choral epilogue.
Unfortunately, conspicuous technical bobbles marred Thursday evening's performance of the symphony. Even more troubling was the sense that, though Welser-Möst's basic approach to the work held promise, details were some distance from falling into place. Consider the second movement-a portrait of the maiden Gretchen. Some conductors can't resist the urge to linger here, pouring additional syrup on the sometimes sugarsweet music and evoking a Gretchen who'd make Disney's Snow White seem gritty and streetwise. Welser-Möst, by contrast, took the movement at a comparatively expeditious clip. But the trick of getting the melodic lines to unfold naturally at this tempo proved elusive. For once, the reprise of the movement's main theme by four solo violins didn't sound saccharine; but the hurry-scurry sound of the quartet wasn't ideal either.
Indeed, the only finished-sounding performance on Thursday's concert was the encore: a spirited rendition of the Third Act Prelude from Wagner's Lohengrin. Mitsuko Uchida's playing in the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto didn't quite have the preternatural poise Severance Hall concertgoers have come to expect. But there were, as usual, details at which to marvel: the sudden downshift, for example, at the end of a run of sixteenth-notes, so tastefully judged that it didn't have the slightest hint of pretense.
This collaboration between Uchida and Welser-Möst will probably, like the latter's Faust Symphony, require a little more time to really come together. There were suggestions, particularly in the concluding Rondo, that pianist, conductor, and orchestra hadn't quite settled into a common sense of the music's shape and pulse. "Don't ask if we're in complete agreement," reads one of Goethe's maxims, "but whether we're acting with one mind." Unity of intention is a goal that Uchida achieved admirably in her recording of this concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Kurt Sanderling. Given a few more go-rounds, she and Welser-Möst just might be able to pull it off as well.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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