Elusive New Piano Concerto Precedes Grandiose Bruckner

United StatesUnited States Sciarrino, Bruckner: Jonathan Biss (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Fabio Luisi (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 30.11.2017. (MSJ)

Sciarrino – Il sogno di Stradella (The Dream of Stradella)

Bruckner – Symphony No.4 (‘Romantic’) in E-flat major (1880 version, ed. Leopold Nowak)

Elusive and massive met in this intriguing program from the Cleveland Orchestra and guest conductor Fabio Luisi. The known quantity was Austrian composer Anton Bruckner’s expansive Symphony No.4, but the wild card was the first Cleveland performance of music by the Italian avant-gardiste Salvatore Sciarrino.

Il sogno di Stradella is a new piano concerto co-commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Premiered in Saint Paul in September 2017, the concerto is necessarily short, but highly intriguing.

Necessarily, because Sciarrino’s style is compressed and aphoristic; most of the piece hovers just over the threshold of audibility. It uses extended techniques such as multiphonics, playing behind the bridge on string instruments, and blowing air through wind instruments. The players of the orchestra were game to explore, and Luisi gave skilled direction.

Soloist Jonathan Biss served as both pianist and compere, speaking briefly before the performance to invite the audience into Sciarrino’s world, which depicts seventeenth-century Baroque composer Alessandro Stradella dreaming of future music. The concerto begins starkly, with strange glimmers of sound—resembling Ligeti, but more remote. The piano part—not the usual virtuoso show-off stuff, though still formidably difficult—was equally fragmentary.

Biss led the way into a haze reminiscent of Satie’s Gymnopédies, which then turned to something more Chopinesque, before arriving at a passage like the spectral shadow of a Baroque concerto grosso. The familiar slipped back into the dreamscape, suddenly stopping after only 15 minutes which, nonetheless, seemed timeless. Avant-garde extended techniques can come across as cliches, but here they were fascinating.

After intermission came a broad rendition of Bruckner’s Fourth. At first it seemed that Luisi was going to cast the work in a more lyrical manner than usual, but that proved not to be the case. While he gave distinctive flowing shape to early melodic lines, he built first movement climaxes to towering heights, giving the brass room to build mountains without letting them swamp the rest of the ensemble.

The following andante was just as shrewdly mapped, sonorous strings exploring the byways without haste. The scherzo gained in power from not being rushed off its feet, and the trio was magical. Luisi made no apologies for the rambling, episodic nature of the finale, playing it true to the score. His approach skewed toward the grandiose, and some distance from the approach of past maestros such as Eugen Jochum, who always allowed for plenty of spontaneity.

Luisi was much more calculated — perhaps too much so — preventing the performance from lifting off to the highest plane. Jochum and even the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler left enough to chance that the occasional phrase could sound much more casual and conversational, making Bruckner more human, and less on a pedestal.

But there’s no question that Luisi knew what he wanted and knew how to get it. It was a distinguished, impressive performance, all the bolder for being brought to Cleveland, where music director Franz Welser-Möst has made Bruckner a specialty.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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