United States Dvořák, Tchaikovsky: Mark Kosower (cello), Cleveland Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, 17.4.2014 (MSJ)
Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathetique”
Two masterpieces inspired by love were intriguingly paired on this Cleveland Orchestra concert. The first, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, quotes a song he wrote for his true love—not his wife, but her sister, Josefina Kaunitzova. Shortly after he completed the work, Josefina unexpectedly passed away, so he rewrote the finale to add a rapturous duet between the solo cello and the principal violin. The duet trails off into sadness, before a hair-raisingly unstable coda closes the work.
Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony has not yielded its secrets as clearly, though it is thought to involve the composer’s love for Vladimir Davydov, the work’s dedicatee. The fact that Tchaikovsky died within days of the work’s premiere, with Davydov himself committing suicide a dozen years later, has only added to the work’s aura of doomed love. Such a program might threaten to exhaust, but under the sure hand of beloved guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt, it remained fresh and focused.
In the Dvořák, mastery old and young met, as principal cello Mark Kosower joined Blomstedt in a noble yet emotionally direct performance. As a principal in one of the world’s greatest orchestras, Kosower’s excellence was a given, but he also counterbalanced poise with intensity of expression, whether in the big, crunchy chords of the first movement, the poignant singing of the slow one, or the defiant resolve of the finale. Kosower’s playing was a radiant blend of beauty and emotion throughout, but he saved his most breathtaking moment for the very end, after Dvořák’s infinitely sad contemplation of the return of the theme from the slow movement (in a lovely duet with concertmaster William Preucil). On his final, held-out note, Kosower started at a whisper without any vibrato, a cold, remote tone bleached of all expression. As he held the pitch, Kosower gradually introduced tender vibrato, growing in intensity as he increased the volume to a full-throated, throbbing roar. Blomstedt matched the soloist throughout with deft, alert leadership, never pulling punches yet always in balance with the soloist.
The Tchaikovsky was equally fine, as Blomstedt kept the composer’s balletic poise in mind amidst turbulent passion. The first movement was delivered frankly, without any fussy dovetailing of phrases or misty blending of transitions. It’s an approach that might not work in every conductor’s hands, but Blomstedt’s engagement with the music’s soul brought a real emotional conviction to the orchestra’s playing, speaking honestly, without exaggeration. Best of all was the famous second theme, speaking with a simple, open heart instead of histrionic swoon.
Blomstedt continued this classical-yet-never-cold approach in the middle movements, though I would argue that his reserve left the lopsided waltz and manic march a touch subdued. But his strategy became clear enough as the lamenting finale began with a surge in the massed strings that continued all the way through to the hushed end. Even with the inner movements treated as lighter vignettes between the emotional pillars of the outer ones, the performance demonstrated the sheer power and genius of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony.
Blomstedt didn’t need to grandstand or put the music through a tortuous “interpretation.” The veteran conductor simply asked the orchestra and audience to trust the music, letting it speak. Nearing 87 years of age, Blomstedt carries both quiet authority and frank warmth. He clearly inspires the Clevelanders to play their hearts out, and let us hope that his visits continue long into the future.
Mark Sebastian Jordan