An Illusion of Spring—If Only for an Evening

United StatesUnited States Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Wigglesworth, Britten: Rudolf Buchbinder (piano), Kate Royal (soprano), Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), John Tessier (tenor), Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (Robert Porco, director), Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus (Ann Usher, director), Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 06.03.2014 (MSJ)

Sibelius: Lemminkäinen’s Return
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Wigglesworth: Locke’s Theatre
Britten: Spring Symphony


Ohio has seen a hard winter this year, dropping on four occasions beneath zero on the Fahrenheit scale, with an almost constant blanket of snow since November. Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra could not have known what the weather would be like when they programmed Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony last year for the end of the winter season, but as it turned out, it was an inspired choice, giving the work even greater resonance.

The works gathered around it made for a loose theme of return, starting off with the veritable ice-storm of Lemminkaïnen’s Return, one of the four tone poems which Sibelius based on legends from the Nordic epic Kalevala. Welser-Möst kept the pace lively without attempting to set any speed records, shrewdly judging the tempo to maintain excitement while allowing the composer’s jagged internal lines to emerge with clarity. It made a rousing opener.

The eminent Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s wickedly wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Where Welser-Möst had seemed measured, almost implacable in the Sibelius, Buchbinder assumed that role, while the conductor and orchestra supplied the rhapsodic elements. A trifle sober, Buchbinder’s approach was a welcome corrective to those who view the work as nothing more than a virtuoso lark, rather than one of Rachmaninoff’s darkest and most intense. And the inclusion of the medieval plainchant Dies irae shows that Rachmaninoff did not intend easy crowd-pleasing.

When I was a twelve-year-old discovering classical music, I was puzzled by “greatest hits” collections that featured the romantic 18th variation, shorn of context. It was pretty, but I didn’t see why everyone swooned to what struck me as three minutes of an over-baked Hollywood soundtrack. Only later did I find the 18th variation a sweet relief; it could draw tears from a stone. But the witty nightmares come galloping back in for the work’s close.

Buchbinder’s crisp but serious course was perfectly in balanced contrast with the orchestra’s surge throughout the early variations. Welser-Möst paid special attention to the whispered entry of the strings in the slow ones, creating a breathtaking backdrop, but Buchbinder didn’t seem to take the invitation, moving things along resolutely. This is still preferable to an exaggerated, hammy approach, but it undersold the preface to the 17th variation, making the following one seem less eventful. The big 18 was tastefully restrained, though quite bewitching in the gently glamorous sound of the Cleveland strings. The closing variations were riveting, with the final wink brought off to perfection.

Opening the second half was the United States premiere of Locke’s Theatre by Ryan Wigglesworth, the orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow. A set of three short movements inspired by Matthew Locke’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the work’s fascinating baroque textures are buried (some might say overwhelmed) by a huge orchestra making modernist gestures—a catalog of old-fashioned avant-garde effects. Moments of breathtaking originality are sacrificed to a rather academic modernism. Rather than the baroque composers of 1600s England, this work reminds me of the composers around the court of Avignon, France, in the late 1300s—Solage and Royllart and the like, known as the “ars subtilior” composers—who wrote extremely clever works for a tiny, sophisticated audience. Locke’s Theatre has that sort of connoisseur’s cachet, yet there were moments of real communication trying to break through the noise. I’d like to hear more of the composer’s work, but this one seemed all sound and fury, though Welser-Möst and the orchestra dramatically brought off the fragmented gestures.

Last, lightest, and loveliest came a rare performance of Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony. Cleveland has been something of a desert for English music over the years, and it has only been since Welser-Möst came to town that some of the great English works have been featured more prominently. The Spring Symphony did have one earlier appearance in Severance Hall, nearly fifty years ago, in the hands of legendary choral conductor Robert Shaw. Welser-Möst is at his finest in choral works, and it’s hard to imagine this performance falling short of any other yardstick.

Britten sets English poems about the coming of spring from across the centuries, using a fascinating structure. Four parts containing numerous songs form an outline of a traditional symphony, but the composer only reveals its symphonic stature late in the score. The opening orchestral plea for the return of the sun’s warmth was given vividly icy presentation, in contrast to the warmth of the chorus. Tenor John Tessier brought a light, gleaming voice to “The Merry Cuckoo” and subsequent solos. Kate Royal’s voice was sweet and agile in “The Driving Boy,” where she was joined by the children’s chorus, which was spectacularly accurate though arguably a little too well-scrubbed for the rural farm boy of the text.

For awhile, these sections following the icy opening come close to being the sort of twee English nostalgia that is easy to laugh at in our gritty world. But Britten was just as shrewd in setting up the heart of his Spring Symphony as Rachmaninoff was in setting up that 18th variation in his Rhapsody. “Out on the lawn I lie abed” drops the quaint preciousness and gets to the point. Like an English Knoxville: Summer of 1915, the song contrasts the narrator’s sheltered, comfortable world with staggering intimations of a wider one beyond. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton used her rich voice to plumb the depths of this Auden poem, supported expressively by the chorus.

In the final part, Britten sets aside all the ritualistic masks and makes spring happen musically with a virtual garden of melodic counterpoint. The vignettes disappear, and in their place is a wide-flung symphonic landscape, dancing with the coming of spring. The movement is set in motion with an exceedingly rare appearance by an honest-to-goodness cow horn—think Texas longhorn in size—vigorously sounded by orchestra hornist Hans Clebsch. The instrument’s bawdy rasp summons orchestra, chorus, and soloists into a joyous dance of renewal, magically joined at its height by the children’s chorus singing the ancient English round “Sumer is icumen in,” woven right into the texture. Finally, the Spring Symphony is revealed to be a pageant tapping deep social and cultural roots, a modern fertility rite. Welser-Möst encouraged the chorus to vividly project the work’s words as the orchestra joined in a colorful wave of sound, capped with the second witty closing of the night.

What a shock, then, after having experienced spring, to step outside Severance Hall and discover that winter hadn’t quite given up its grip. But it’s slipping.

Mark Sebastian Jordan