Gaffigan and Hough Offer Sharp Characterisations


Blossom Music Festival [8] – Barber, Mendelssohn, Sibelius: Stephen Hough (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / James Gaffigan (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 18.8.2018. (MSJ)

Stephen Hough (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke

BarberEssay No.2, Op.17

Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25

Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43

With conductor James Gaffigan shaping phrasing aggressively to emphasize the drama, the Cleveland Orchestra gave a strongly committed reading of Samuel Barber’s second essay for orchestra. In most places, particularly where crisp chords ring out, the work made a brilliant impact. Perhaps the reverberant acoustic of the Blossom Pavilion blurred textures in the central fugato string passages, but it’s hard to imagine them emerging more effectively at a slower tempo. Gaffigan went for broad strokes and made the piece — one of three such essays Barber composed throughout his career — visceral and compelling.

Pianist Stephen Hough is likewise a bold shaper of gestures, and his rendition of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto was sharply characterized. As is often pointed out, Mendelssohn was the most classical of the early romantic composers, and Hough made sure that one didn’t forget the composer’s emotion and temperament. Gaffigan matched Hough in propelling the concerto’s first theme with stormy energy, then stepped back to let the pianist ease into the second one, maintaining the basic tempo, yet allowing moments of repose and transition at the ends of phrases.

The slow movement was luminous, with Hough’s delicate textures contrasting with the glowing warmth of the violas. Only a handful of unusually bronchial audience members marred the loveliness — they were poised to bark at the quietest moments — plus a distant firework display apparently the next valley or two over.

The finale was ebullient, though kept with one foot firmly in the world of German romanticism and not glibly tossed off as a proto-Offenbach galop. Hough made the most of the dramatic return of the first movement’s second theme, before he and the orchestra sprinted to the end, and rewarded the vigorous applause with a refreshingly understated Clair de lune by Debussy.

Like Barber and Mendelssohn, Sibelius was also a romantic composer with a strong classical streak. But Gaffigan’s leadership in the composer’s second symphony didn’t keep the large structural paragraphs clearly in sight, and the spirited but not always motivated changes in tempo didn’t help. For instance, although the opening sequence contains some tempo shifts, it doesn’t contain as many as were heard on this occasion. All the gear-shifting compromised the focus. And so it continued: outward busyness but without a strong inner logic.

The second movement was peculiar: Gaffigan kept building up, then pulling back into a sort of generic grandeur every time one of Sibelius’s uncompromising climaxes approached. This softening of punches kept it from being the harrowing experience it could have been. Wisely, the scherzo was paced moderately, for anything faster would turn into a fuzzy blur in the Blossom acoustic, but in the trio the tempo wandered erratically. The Finale began to generate a more compelling energy, though there were still moments of flailing and grimacing from Gaffigan that weren’t reflected in the orchestral results. But the Cleveland Orchestra in full voice is still one of the mightiest sounds on this planet, so the ending was stirring and brought the crowd to its feet.

None of this is to say that the performance was a bad, or that Gaffigan is deficient. He’s a fine conductor who has led many satisfying readings with this and other orchestras. But Sibelius requires discipline and ferocity that weren’t there as they were during the Barber. There, Gaffigan was inside the music. In the Sibelius, he was outside looking in. In that, he’s not alone. Like Mahler — though for very different reasons — Sibelius is a tough nut to crack. Though many conduct his work, only a few unlock his secret voice.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Mark Sebastian Jordan’s reviewing activity in 2018 is supported by an Individual Excellence grant in Criticism from the Ohio Arts Council.


Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews



Season Previews

  • NEW! Let’s Dance International Frontiers 29 April – 11 May 2019 in Leicester __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music and Other Events at the Southbank Centre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Longborough Festival Opera’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Cleveland Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Carnegie Hall 2019-2020 Season Highlights __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera’s 2019 Performances of Stephen Storace’s Gli sposi malcontenti __________________________________
  • NEW! Nevill Holt Opera’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! 2019 Aldeburgh Festival at the Snape Maltings in June __________________________________
  • NEW! Garsington Opera’s 2019 30th Anniversary Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Venus Unwrapped: Kings Place’s Year-Long Focus on Women Composers __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Buenos Aires in 2019 – Largely Traditional __________________________________
  • NEW! Looking Ahead to the 2019 Lucerne Festivals __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Holland Park’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • The Royal Opera House’s Exciting 2018/19 Cinema Season __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Zurich Opera in 2018/2019 and Beyond __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! A New Initiative is Announced Supporting the Development of Female Conductors __________________________________
  • NEW! In August Fulham Opera’s Most Ambitious Project to Date – Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg __________________________________
  • NEW! Chelsea Opera Group Perform Boito’s Mefistofele on 24 March at the QEH __________________________________
  • R.I.P. IN MEMORIAM ANDRÉ PREVIN (1929-2019) __________________________________
  • NEW! Ivan Putrov’s Against the Stream Ballet Gala Night on 7 April __________________________________
  • NEW! London To Hear Long-Overdue Revival of Parry’s Oratorio Judith in April __________________________________
  • NEW! Ik zeg: NU: I say now, now … an interview with Richard Causton __________________________________
  • NEW! SOPRANO ELENA MOȘUC IN CONVERSATION WITH CASEY CREEL __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month