Season Opener Sports Elegant Playing (At Least)

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Mahler: Hélène Grimaud (piano), Cleveland Orchestra, Fabio Luisi (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 19.9.2013 (MSJ)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73,Emperor”
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major


To hear some talk about the Metropolitan Opera’s heir apparent, Fabio Luisi, you’d think he rode into New York on a shining white steed to save the day when music director James Levine became incapacitated with back problems. Based on his concert Thursday night with the Cleveland Orchestra—their season opener—I would be perfectly happy if he keeps his stable in New York and Europe. Perhaps he is a much more ardent conductor of opera than symphonic music—an argument his body of recordings, thus far, seems to support—or perhaps he just doesn’t have a great deal of chemistry with the Clevelanders. Whatever the case, the concert, while well-played and full of interesting details, never amounted to anything inspiriting.

That said, I take full blame for not being inspired by Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, which has never has been one of my favorites. For Beethoven in heroic mode I much prefer the Eroica Symphony (coming to Cleveland in a few weeks, incidentally). For Beethoven in virtuoso mode I prefer the Waldstein Sonata or the Piano Concerto No. 1. But in his fifth concerto, Beethoven combined the least endearing aspects of these styles—what a lot of notes! Now and then the music seems to be on the verge of going somewhere, but never quite does.

I had hoped that the bold and quirky pianist Hélène Grimaud might find some way to make this music click for me, and she did, briefly: her slow movement reminded me of the sense of wonder she conjured a dozen years ago on that same stage in the slow movement of Ravel’s Concerto in G, one of my best concert experiences ever. Her cascading torrents of arpeggios in the first movement, though, seemed Apollonian and remote, no matter how gorgeously played. That sensation was intensified by Luisi’s attenuated treatment of the opening chords, dissolving into mist as if trying to simulate a more resonant acoustic, a calculated, faux-romantic effect. Indeed, Luisi’s well-upholstered approach to the orchestral part might make one think that the historically-informed performance movement never happened. It is fine to perform Beethoven in the grand old-fashioned way if it works—but this didn’t. The playing was grand, but never compelling.

The Mahler had some moments. After all, Mahler was a skilled conductor, and he loaded his scores with detailed instructions. Kudos to Luisi for paying attention to those details, even if he fixated on the numerous small crescendos and decrescendos. By following the instructions closely, one is guaranteed at least a solid performance. In places, it even began to smolder, but it just never caught fire.

At the beginning, Luisi’s broad tempo and low energy made for a vigorous climax in the middle of the movement, but it arose without real motivation. There was too much prettiness and not enough real beauty. Refer to old recordings by Klaus Tennstedt or Leonard Bernstein: Beauty isn’t always pretty. Both conductors better grasped that the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth is like a classical symphony allegro that had been tossed into a blender and then poured back out, strange phrases jutting out in odd places. Luisi acknowledged the tempo changes, but did not ask for the orchestra to play them with any inflection, wit or sarcasm. The potential fun of the first movement is that it is the megalomanic romantic composer writing a satire on the old-fashioned classics. This performance lacked a real point of view.

The second movement featured an incisive violin solo by concertmaster William Preucil using scordatura (non-standard tuning, in which each string is tuned a whole-step higher than the rest of the violins), but the part is written a whole-step lower than everyone else. The result is an extended solo that sounds perfectly in tune with the orchestra, but has a pinched, nasal quality. It’s perfect for a solo that Mahler described as “Death strikes up” (“Freund Hein spielt auf”), in the persona of Freund Hein, a sinister German folk character. Using a separate violin just for the movement, Preucil brought real personality to the solos. The orchestra’s woodwinds matched him in colorful, characterful solo work, and at one transition, Luisi lingered to allow the wonderfully weird cross-glissandos of the strings to be heard.

The third movement was lovely, in a drooping, somnolent way. Again, it wasn’t inhabited from the inside, so its deep restlessness didn’t register. At heart, this music is a search for heaven. Three times it builds to a peak without finding its way to paradise. Finally, it resigns itself to eternally drifting, subsiding into quiet radiance. Then, out of nowhere, the gates of heaven crash open with a building-shaking roar capped by harps and cymbals, for which Luisi rightly pulled out all the stops. Elsewhere the conductor’s tempos were sluggish. Rather than helping the orchestra play together by subdividing his baton gestures, he left the players to approximate entrances, leading to jumbled plucked notes. To be fair, many conductors allow for that sort of imprecision in slow movements. But, why, when it can be so easily avoided? Even Bernstein, who often didn’t give a hoot about precision, kept a firm hand—the tempo flowing, searching, not drifting. (Incidentally, the opening of this movement appears to consciously refer to the slow movement in the Beethoven—a nice programming touch.)

Before the third movement, Luisi paused to bring out soprano Maureen McKay, a disruptive break provoking audience applause as the beautiful soloist strolled onstage. He might as well have brought her out at the quiet close of the third movement, which ended with a long, tension-dissipating pause. I think it’s more appropriate to start the finale without pause, and have the soprano enter from the wings just as the finale’s instrumental introduction is unwinding. One time here, Franz Welser-Möst did just that: during  the end of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, a soprano wandered in offstage before she began the Four Last Songs—a more organic transition.

McKay was an excellent soloist, inhabiting the child’s voice as a character without resorting to parody. She captured the sense of wonder inherent in the old German folk-poem, singing about heaven as a place of endless plenty and dissolving into bliss at the end—straightforward, without irony. McKay’s diction was clear without overemphasis, and her voice has a silvery quality that is ideal here. The movement would have made a perfect culmination if the rest of the performance had more of a sense of arriving at a destination. After all, even though this is Mahler at his most gentle and approachable, this is still a symphony about death.

Am I being the curmudgeonly critic? Perhaps so. Both performances received standing ovations from a good portion of the crowd. Even the couple sitting in front of me, who dozed off during the third movement and finale, jumped up at the end, applauding.

Mark Sebastian Jordan