Prosaic Planets Offset by Dazzling Hadelich

United StatesUnited States Dvořák, Holst: Augustin Hadelich (violin), Blossom Festival Chorus/Robert Porco (director), The Cleveland Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, OH. 26.8.2017. (MSJ)

Dvořák – Violin Concerto in A minor

Holst – The Planets

It is said that Czech composer Antonín Dvořák preferred his Violin Concerto to his much more popular and acclaimed Cello Concerto. But that story never really rang true until hearing this Blossom Music Festival performance by Augustin Hadelich. Even considering recordings by Midori, Milstein, Stern, Suk, and Swensen, none of those has ever succeeded in holding my attention consistently through the composer’s amiable meanderings.

But Hadelich brought something different, a sheer determination to find the work’s voice and make it speak. And ‘speak’ is the operative word, because unlike the vast majority of musicians currently performing, Hadelich makes it feel like he is speaking to you. He never just plays notes. That almost ‘parlando’ narrative arc is something rarely heard since pianist Artur Schnabel in the first half of the twentieth century. Clearly, communication means more to Hadelich than showing off his technique.

That said, his technique is brilliant. He may not have the super-luminous tone of, say, Gil Shaham, or the spiky flash of a Julia Fischer, but those styles wouldn’t help his direct communication, whereas his darkly-hued sound does.

The first movement of the Dvořák, in particular, covers a lot of ground without strong connecting threads, but Hadelich found the through-line. He made it seem an effortless—though always passionate—flow from one thought to the next, exquisitely winding down into the slow movement, which was tender and poignant. Hadelich found the perfect tempo for the good-natured finale—fast enough to keep it on its dancing toes, yet never hectic or pressured. He was ably supported by crisp shaping of the orchestral parts from conductor Cristian Măcelaru.

The huge audience wasn’t content to let Hadelich leave without a little more of his magic, so he played Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 as a solo encore. Hadelich brought new life to this gem, a famously difficult miniature set of variations on an obsessive theme, and one that went on to haunt Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Blacher, and Lutoslawski, among others. Without ever striving for effect, Hadelich made this ferociously technical music speak, from shrieks to haunted whispers. The technical fireworks were breathtaking, but they were there to serve Paganini’s demonic inspiration. After having encountered Hadelich twice live, this appearance confirmed that he must be considered one of the world’s best violinists.

This concert marked the Cleveland Orchestra debut of Romanian-born Măcelaru, recently named music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. His approach to Holst’s The Planets was colorful and powerful, more in line with the work’s blockbuster reputation than with the composer’s astrologically-tinted spirituality. More earthy than atmospheric, Măcelaru led with vigor, sculpting many phrases, and letting climaxes rip when it was suitable to roar.

There were some minor issues early on. In “Mars, The Bringer of War,” the slow 5/2 tempo section is supposed to have one beat equaling exactly two beats from the main 5/4 section. Măcelaru slowed the rhythm down for effect, necessitating an awkward gear shift back into the fast tempo. Also, at the end of the movement, he ignored Holst’s marked rallentando over the closing series of chords, keeping them going in tempo to a perfunctory end.

“Venus, The Bringer of Peace” oozed out at a tempo more suitable for “Venus, The Bringer of Sleep,” but that is closer to Holst’s world than the lush Hollywood approach some conductors take. Things perked up with a quick and alert “Mercury, The Winged Messenger,” and a lively, dancing “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity.” The performance finally hit its stride with a spacious, deeply-felt “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age,” remorseless and terrifying in its power, with a true sense of alarm at the climax. “Uranus, The Magician” continued in vivid style, with Măcelaru nailing the perfect tempo—loose enough to have wit, but driven enough for a frightening impact.

The closing “Neptune, The Mystic” wasn’t on the same plane. Măcelaru took a slow tempo, too obviously searching for mysticism. As the work’s first conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, proved so magically in his final recording in 1978 (sixty years after he first conducted it), the mysticism must come from the conductor’s appreciation of Holst’s world: Despite the popular culture it later influenced, this score is not Star Wars, nor is it NASA-space-probe images of the actual planets. It is a work of smoky spiritualism, astrology, and shadowy seances. It is a work of elusive states and blended hues, not technicolor special effects. It doesn’t explore outer space as much as inner space. To overemphasize the obvious is to miss Holst entirely.

In his final recording Boult held the orchestra spellbound at an easily flowing tempo for “Neptune,” to otherworldly effect. At Măcelaru’s slow tempo, the movement seemed not timeless but endless. When the wordless female choir entered near the end, it was a little too close, likely because there aren’t a lot of places to stick a choir out of sight in the Blossom pavilion. That said, the singers offered beautiful intonation and clarity.

As the final bars faded, I expected the stage doors to be gradually closed to make the fade seem infinite—which is exactly what Holst’s score directs the performers to do. Instead, the doors remained wide open and the singers were clearly cut off halfway through one of the two-chord oscillations, presumably by Blossom Festival Chorus director Robert Porco, after Măcelaru had stopped conducting onstage. It was a prosaic and disappointing ending that violated both the composer’s intent, and the momentum of what was, overall, an audience-pleasing performance.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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