United Kingdom Lutoslawski, Smetana: Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Usher Hall, 21.08.2012 (SRT)
Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra
Smetana: Má Vlast (Parts 1-4)
You don’t readily associate the Cleveland Orchestra with the music of Eastern Europe, but for their two-concert stay in Edinburgh they are playing music from Bohemia, Poland and Russia. It’s a testament to their breathtaking musicianship that they fit into it so quickly and so well. When they played in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, the thing that impressed me most was the scale and breadth of their playing. That’s still there, but this programme of Lutoslawski and Smetana also showcased their kaleidoscopic versatility and attention to detail.
The strings, in particular, still have that rich, aristocratic quality that rubs off on everything they play. The rhythmic scything that opens Lutoslawski’s concerto sounded precise and warm, sharp without losing depth or grandeur. They even managed to sound expansive in the rhythmic scampering that opened the second movement. Meanwhile the wind playing was marvellously full, an ensemble of virtuoso soloists with lovely internal sonorities opening out of the texture. Franz Welser-Möst is an architectural conductor who builds a structure out of sound. In his hands the music unfolds with purpose and clarity, especially in the concluding passacaglia, each repetition flecked with a new splash of colour, leading to an arresting and exhilarating conclusion.
Even more opportunities for virtuoso display came in Má Vlast, Smetana’s great hymn to his homeland. The opening of Vyšehrad moved with slow but unstoppable momentum (just like the course of Czech history, of course!) and playing of poetic richness and almost tangible power; nobility in the brass with a wonderful sheen, and a sense of ebb and flow to the strings. Those same strings had a shimmering, almost evanescent quality in Vltava, the music barely taking shape before dissolving and vanishing again, but then sounding grounded and earthy in the polka. The whole orchestra seemed to enjoy getting stuck into the violence of Šárka, and there was a great sweep to the opening of “Woods and Fields”, building to a carefree climax that felt uncontrollable while in fact being held in check by the ever precise baton of Welser-Möst.
We were treated to super playing and super conducting, though I question the decision to divide the cycle over two concerts: Tábor and Blaník will open tomorrow night’s concert, an unnecessary step which breaks up the flow. Tonight’s concert lasted only 1¾ hours: you could easily have fitted them in and finished in plenty of time to get the bus home!
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk