CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 3 DECEMBER 2009
Carl Maria von Weber: Overture to Der Freischütz. Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27. (Richard Goode, p.; Iván Fischer, cond.)
Leo Tolstoy's outspoken opinions on matters moral and aesthetic often made life uncomfortable for those around him. The autobiography of Feodor Chaliapin describes a visit which he and Sergei Rachmaninoff made to the great Russian writer in January 1900. Tolstoy asked Rachmaninoff to play something on the piano, and Rachmaninoff complied. Tolstoy was not impressed. "Tell me," he asked, "has that type of music any interest whatever?"
Over the course of the last century, more than a few listeners have asked that same question about the Rachmaninoff work that appears on this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts: the Symphony No. 2. "Tedious and tenuous spinning," declared the Times on the occasion of the symphony's New York premiere. "In default of sense," said a 1920s writer for The Freeman, "we take what pleasure we can in suavity." And yet the Rachmaninoff Second has established itself as a regular visitor to the concert stage.
Guest conductor Iván Fischer's case for this symphony is more solid than most. Romance? There's plenty in Fischer's realization. But the conductor positions the symphony nearer to Casablanca than to the average chick flick by focusing on the romance's sinister surroundings. In the opening Largo, for example, the emphasis is not on the Mills and Boon climax that begins to coalesce about three minutes in, but on the disquieting colors and forbidding shapes that precede it. The Scherzo is strikingly eerie, and the Trio sounds downright manic. Fischer doesn't fully exonerate the symphony from charges of sentimentality and long-windedness, but his brisk, vivid, dramatically tense interpretation makes for refreshing listening.
Richard Goode's reading of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto pushes the work toward the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from Rachmaninoff's music. Goode's Third is characterized by Mozartean poise rather than romantic angst. His treatment of the third movement, for example, is meticulous and subdued, stressing clarity instead of the music's dark-humored buoyancy. And its vigorous Presto conclusion is more an affair of wit than of exuberance. Though Thursday evening's performance was sometimes marred by an imperfect mesh of soloist and orchestra, it offered a valuable glimpse of Beethoven's classical roots.
The overture to Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz introduced Thursday's concert. Fischer, so expert at animating Rachmaninoff's writing, was less successful with Weber. The opening Adagio section in particular sounded blunt and blurry—in need, perhaps, of a bit more rehearsal. It is curious that, of the three pieces on this weekend's program, only this one, taken from an opera about a shooting contest, should go far wide of the mark.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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