Cleveland in Recent Saariaho and Underrated Shostakovich

United StatesUnited States  Brahms, Saariaho, Shostakovich: Gil Shaham (violin), Cleveland Orchestra, Franz-Welser-Möst (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 23.5.2012 (BH)

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1878)
: Laterna Magica (2008, New York premiere)
: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54 (1939)

Sometimes Fate intervenes with the best of intentions, and in the first of two concerts at Carnegie Hall, Franz Welser-Möst and the great Cleveland Orchestra did the best they could with an unexpected wild card: having to replace pianist Yefim Bronfman (who fell suddenly ill) on apparently less than eight hours’ notice, and the scheduled Brahms Second Piano Concerto. Gil Shaham offered the composer’s Violin Concerto instead. Shaham is a fine artist, and I wish I could report that he saved the day, but this performance just didn’t quite come together, despite some moments here and there, and Shaham’s entertaining stage demeanor. It wasn’t “awful” by any means, but he and the ensemble seemed at odds about tempi and phrasing, and all three movements were dogged with sporadic intonation gremlins.

Things improved dramatically after intermission, with the New York premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, which takes its title from the autobiography of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Related influences are Sven Nyqvist (Bergman’s favorite cinematographer) and one of Nyqvist’s most famous projects, Cries and Whispers, Bergman’s 1972 film starring Liv Ullmann. Saariaho’s gorgeous opening chord drips with brass, chimes and violins, later leading to sensuous clouds of strings and winds. Sibilant whispers (the word Licht, i.e., “light”) waft up from deep within the orchestra. Images of light are conjured up everywhere, until the piece simply evaporates. It is a treat to hear a score like this one illuminated by an ensemble that can communicate its many pleasures so effortlessly.

After Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony, he announced that the next one would honor Lenin, using soloists and a chorus, but when the time came, the Sixth Symphony took a decidedly different turn. Its half-hour begins with a weighty Largo—mournful, agonizing—followed by an impish Allegro waltz, and then a Presto that is the fastest and shortest of the three movements. With all sections on high alert, the playing was immaculate, even if, as in the concert Salome of the previous night, Welser-Möst seemed to favor tempi slightly faster than some might have wished. But between the anguish of the first movement, the quizzical lyricism of the second and the raucous hijinks of the finale, the orchestra spun out dazzling sprays of color.              


Bruce Hodges