CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 27 NOVEMBER 2009
Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 9 in E-flat major, K. 271 ("Jeunehomme"). Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ("From the New World"). (Jonathan Biss, p.; Bertrand de Billy, cond.)
In August 1879, the 72-year-old Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was approached by a woman as he stood at the front door of his Massachusetts home. "Is this the house where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born?" the woman inquired. "No," Longfellow answered. "Did he die here?" she asked, whereupon the poet dryly replied: "Not yet."
Longfellow went the way of all flesh a couple years later, but his influence lives on-despite the fact that "Paul Revere's Ride" and "The Courtship of Miles Standish" no longer hold the proud place in the grade-school curriculum that they once did. When we observe that "Into each life some rain must fall" or compare people to "ships that pass in the night," we're quoting Longfellow. And when we hear Dvorák's "New World" symphony, we're hearing music inspired in part by Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha.
The symphony's narrative origins are worth keeping in mind when listening to this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra performances led by guest conductor Bertrand de Billy. The conductor offers a taut, engaging "New World" that seems as much a dramatic construct as the program opener: a vigorous rendition of Beethoven's Egmont Overture. It's not the sentiment but the theatrical thrill of Dvorák's writing that seems de Billy's primary interest. He doesn't dawdle over the first movement's "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" theme, and he works through the Largo even more quickly than George Szell in his relatively expeditious Cleveland Orchestra recording. At times de Billy's account loses rhythmic clarity—during the transition leading to the G-minor theme in the first-movement exposition, for example. But such lapses are short, and before long the game's again afoot.
Jonathan Biss' version of Mozart's "Jeunehomme" concerto completed Friday's program. The concerto's outer movements sounded somewhat rushed. Though the speed of Biss' fingerwork in the concluding Presto was undoubtedly impressive, the music could have benefited from a bit more space. But Biss' straightforward, often self-effacing account of the Andantino had a natural grace and elegance that was far more affecting than the technical fireworks that followed.
As Hiawatha sets forth on the Gitche Gumee in the eighth section of Longfellow's epic, we are told: "Through the clear, transparent water / He could see the fishes swimming / Far down in the depths below him." At its best, Biss' piano playing is like that water. It's not particularly colorful, but it's a fine medium through which to view the depths of Mozart's achievement.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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