Enchantments (Except for Brahms) from Mikko Franck and Cleveland Orchestra

12/12/2017

Julian Anderson, Mozart, Brahms: Richard Goode (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Mikko Franck (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 7.12.2017. (MSJ)

Julian Anderson – Incantesimi

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.18 in B-flat, K.456

Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

It’s all about the transformation of energy, this thing we call music. This Cleveland Orchestra concert—led with confidence by Mikko Franck, replacing an ailing Christoph von Dohnányi—offered examples of what works and what doesn’t.

The best was the local premiere of a compelling recent work by American composer Julian Anderson, Incantesimi. The program gave the more general term ‘enchantments’ as a translation of the title, though a more literal equivalent, ‘incantations’, is more evocative, given that the work comes across as a series of increasingly volatile magic spells.

Written for large orchestra, the overture-length duration and expanded percussion section seemed generated from the new work playbook at first glance, but Anderson’s engaging study in musical chemistry defies cliches: tones react to each other to create a huge, even scary energy. Tonality combines with tone clusters, which build to bell-pierced peaks. Although originally programmed by Dohnányi, Franck threw himself into it with assured clarity. Many new works are played once and forgotten, but this one would be a welcome repeat visitor.

In Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.18 with Richard Goode, Franck defied modern fashion and left a large complement of strings in place, valuing depth of sound over crispness. This worked best in the gently melancholy slow movement, where some of the big string chords were juicy and rich. But overall, the extra strings felt like unnecessary plush upholstery. Goode focused on an infinitely flexible through-line, using limber rhythms and lyrical warmth. The slow movement is sometimes milked for a little more emotion, but Goode and Franck kept Mozart’s tempo marking in mind: flowing but only a little bit sustained.

Brahms’ instructions for his First Symphony were not so consistently followed, which is not necessarily a problem. Great performances can arise from a very personal interaction with a score, but adherence to received tradition is not that personal. Franck’s first movement seemed more score-aligned, although a little speed appeared before arriving at the exposition repeat. Some transitional tempos were massaged, but there was no bloated slowing down for the second theme, nor a complete return to the lugubrious introductory tempo in the coda. It was a fine start.

The flowing slow movement and third movement interlude were reasonably effective, too, if perhaps a little on autopilot, but destined for a fine outing of a repertory cornerstone. But then came Tradition, with a capital T, in the finale. Frankly, I don’t understand the traditional exaggerations in this movement. I’ve written before about how posterity finds what it wants in art, regardless of the original creator’s intent. But the traditions encrusted on the finale of Brahms’ First strike me as not revelatory, and if they are followed unthinkingly, the fresh blush of a fine performance quickly drains away.

The first exaggeration: a creepingly slow start to the introduction, in this case requiring Franck to subdivide his beat, leading to some coordination problems. Then the tempo dragged, necessitating an unmarked acceleration for the latter part of the introduction, turning it into a sort of mock-allegro. One consistent, flowing tempo for the whole thing works better —which is what Brahms actually wrote.

The second distortion occurred during the famous theme of the finale’s main body, when a luxurious tempo then awkwardly sped up to the marked one. Franck was not as bad as some, but again, if that’s what Brahms really wanted, wouldn’t he have written the score like that? Conducting the theme one-to-a-bar at a moderately fast but energetic pace  — Allegro non troppo ma con brio, as written — takes care of this problem. Last but not least, there was the de rigeur slamming on the brakes for meaningless grandstanding near the end, when the introduction’s chorale theme returns. Once again, no ritardando is marked in Brahms’ score, and when performed as written, it is thrilling instead of an empty gesture.

A Brahms First with frequent alterations of tempo, as Leonard Bernstein always did it, can bring the piece to life in wondrous, personal ways. Sticking fiercely to the printed score, like Franz Welser-Möst does, can be deeply satisfying in a more rigorous way. But this performance, while solid and pleasant, lacked a clear concept, and that kept its chemistry from fully igniting.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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