Modest, Heartfelt Ruminations from Janowski

Fauré, Britten, Franck: Matthew Polenzani (tenor), Richard King (horn), Cleveland Orchestra / Marek Janowski (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 13.10.2013 (MSJ) 

Fauré: Suite from Pelléas and Mélisande
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Franck: Symphony in D minor


This lovely program was full of composers often considered elusive, but Marek Janowski caught their essences by simply letting the music speak for itself. The Polish conductor might not be the first name to leap to mind as an interpreter of French music, but the Franck Symphony in D minor, which closed the concert, was successfully recorded by Janowski with the Swiss Romande Orchestra just a few years back. His approach to this often pulled-about piece is still honest and true. He dares to take Franck at his word and plays what’s in the score, resulting in a genial yet poised rendition. Janowski clearly understands that there’s a rather narrow window of success for Franck’s unorthodox but loveable symphony. If the conductor indulges in its roundabout tangents, the whole thing can sag and drag; on the other hand, pushing it too hard can muddy up its richly oil-painted textures. And excessive tempo changes and dynamic exaggerations can tear apart the modest cathedral of Franck’s vision. Janowski gets it.

Perhaps it is that very modesty the work requires that has sadly led to its slipping from the repertory over the years. After all, in a world of fake reality shows and “More, better, faster!”—who has time for modest, heartfelt ruminations? Well, Marek Janowski for one, and that understated warmth was matched by rich playing from the Cleveland Orchestra. The woodwinds were luminous, keeping even the most organ-like chords in tune. When one soloist in the finale entered a beat early, Janowski and the player were able to snap everything back in place just one beat later. Impressive to catch a rare glimpse of just how tremendously good these musicians are, fixing a potential problem so quickly and smoothly, few in the audience could have known there was ever an issue.

If Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings also seems painted in oil colors, it is not the thick impasto of Franck’s Van Gogh-like hues, but rather more like the glimmering ecstasy of Samuel Palmer’s English country night scenes: visionary and blissful, yet never far away from nightmare. Tenor Matthew Polenzani was a perfect match for Severance Hall, filling the room with light, sweet sound and soaring out over the strings and horn, seemingly without effort. The orchestra’s principal horn, Richard King, took on Britten’s demanding solos with lustrous tone and deft fingers. Janowski let the work weave its magic without pushing any extremes, resulting in a deeply satisfying if reserved performance. Since this weekend’s concerts were the work’s Cleveland Orchestra premiere—seventy years after it was written—let’s hope it takes less time to return.

Opening the program was perhaps the most evocative performance of the day, the suite from Gabriel Fauré’s incidental music for the Maeterlinck play Pelléas et Mélisande. More like a watercolor than oil paints, Fauré’s music was delicate and melancholy, blooming gently under Janowski’s unobtrusive yet watchful eye.

Mark Sebastian Jordan