United States Delius, Vaughan Williams, Strauss: Frank Rosenwein (oboe), Mark Kosower (cello), Wesley Collins (viola), Cleveland Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 20.4.2017. (MSJ)
Delius – Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody
Vaughan Williams – Concerto for Oboe and Strings (Rosenwein)
Strauss – Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character (Kosower, Collins)
If there has been one noticeable hole in the Cleveland Orchestra’s repertory over the years, it is English music. In recent years, though, that has begun to slowly change, and this weekend’s concert led by guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis demonstrated how a shrewdly-built program can use English works to tremendous effect, all while showing off several of the orchestra’s brilliant principals.
The big piece on the bill was Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, but Davis counterbalanced that by opening with another set of lushly scored variations, Frederick Delius’ Brigg Fair Rhapsody. Of course, as English composers go, Delius almost isn’t, being more entrenched in a mixture of French Impressionism and Wagnerian torpor. But that Wagnerian connection makes the music of Delius a perfect foil to Strauss. If Strauss was the extroverted side of Wagner’s musical descendants, then Delius represented the introverted, dreamy side.
Brigg Fair is arguably Delius’ most English-sounding work, based on a folk song collected by Percy Grainger in North Yorkshire in the early 1900s. But Delius takes the simple melody and puts it through the languorous prism of his own style. The orchestra filled the stage with players—including no less than nine basses—and filled the hall with a full and rich sound, quite perfect for this work. While Sir Andrew Davis drew forth this opulence, he took care to keep the tempos moving and energize the passing faster sections. The effect was magical.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto features a soloist like the Strauss, and is English like the Delius, but it stood in stark contrast to its program mates. Scored for solo oboe and a modest string complement, the concerto is economical and laconic. The lyrical solo part has some daringly rhapsodic figurations, including ecstatic arpeggios similar to the composer’s beloved The Lark Ascending, for violin and orchestra. While such passages are challenging enough on the violin, they are even more so on the oboe, long reputed to be the orchestra’s most difficult instrument. Principal oboist Frank Rosenwein navigated those passages fearlessly, including some breathtakingly soft attacks on high notes. Rosenwein’s mastery of his instrument is so complete, that his technique was without question, but he focused on Vaughan Williams’ mutable moods, changing like gentle but unsettled weather. After hearing the work’s long-overdue Cleveland premiere, the charmed audience called Rosenwein and Davis back to the stage multiple times.
A much more familiar visitor to this hall is Strauss’ Don Quixote, and in a performance this good, it can only be welcomed warmly. Principal cellist Mark Kosower portrayed Cervantes’ noble but hapless knight with both comic flair and heartful eloquence, wittily abetted by principal violist Wesley Collins as devoted sidekick Sancho Panza. Sir Andrew Davis sharpened up the cartoony humor to vivid effect without losing its warm heart. The balance between brilliance and warmth was ideal, serving as a good reminder that Davis is as effective in this repertoire as he is in works by his fellow countrymen. Best of all, the conductor led with genial generosity, deftly allowing the main soloists (and many others) their moments to shine, proving that the Cleveland Orchestra is an ensemble of leaders. Davis himself has been a regular guest for over 40 years on this podium, and continues to earn return invitations.
The only minor irritant was an intermittent rattle, from somewhere near the podium. Whatever the source, it didn’t phase Kosower, who kept in close eye contact with Davis, Collins, and concertmaster William Preucil to unite the bold characterizations into a richly satisfying performance.
Mark Sebastian Jordan