Sturm und Drang from a Rare Rigel Symphony

United StatesUnited States Rigel, Mendelssohn, Mozart: Isabelle Faust (violin), The Cleveland Orchestra / Bernard Labadie (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. 15.2.2018. (MSJ)

Henri-Joseph Rigel – Symphony No.4 in C minor Op.12/4
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64
Mozart – Symphony No.40 in G minor K.550

The opening work on Bernard Labadie’s Cleveland Orchestra program brought a new name to me, Henri-Joseph Rigel, a German-born, Paris-based colleague of Mozart. Rigel’s Symphony No.4 demonstrated, once again, the depth of quality writing available during that period. A fine representative of Sturm-und-Drang, the piece opened with an urgent yet stylish Allegro assai. Labadie emphasized the angular accents of the main theme, relaxing into a sunnier second one. Coming from the period instrument world, where he founded the ensemble Les Violons du Roy, Labadie restricted the use of vibrato to only the most expressive moments, but he made use of the Cleveland strings’ depth for dramatic swells.

The central Largo non troppo was initially soothing, but it, too, was disturbed by turbulence in the middle. The final Allegro spiritoso was almost grim in its forward drive, yet deployed many subtle and artful touches, which Labadie highlighted. In its Cleveland debut, Rigel’s symphony was a welcome and fit to stand alongside the classical masters who lurk behind the giants Haydn and Mozart: Boccherini, Clementi, Mysliveček, Stamitz, and Arriaga.

Mozart remains the king of the era, though, for no little-known masterpiece can rival the depths of his final works. Of the last three symphonies, No.40 is the keystone, and it lives in an expressive world stretching the bonds of the classical style even further than the Sturm-und-Drang rumblings of the 1770s. That fashion, for ‘storm-and-stress’ anxiety, was a precursor of the romantic  style to come, but Mozart’s 40th is already well on its way there, because the anxiety is less posed, and more of a personal outburst.

Labadie took every repeat, but emphasized expressiveness to such a degree that repetitions were welcome. His first movement tempo was perfect, very anxious but always poised. While local accents were punched, there was also a long-term vision, an ebb and flow of energy that Labadie used to shape musical paragraphs. Unlike almost everyone who conducts this piece, Labadie mercifully conducted the 6/8 slow movement as two groups of three instead of breaking it apart into six separate beats, which tends to result in tedium. In two beats, the piling layers of pulses can be shaped, letting the whole thing float, and become an otherworldly escape from the tension of the other three movements.

The third movement menuet was stern, slightly faster than traditional, yet broad enough that no slowing was necessary for the gentle trio, the one oasis of true happiness. The finale flew like the wind, and the Cleveland players demonstrated their considerable virtuosity at a breathtaking tempo, which never degenerated into a scramble. In some places, Labadie tapered phrases to lead into the following sections, such as at the end of the exposition—a wonderful touch. Much less convincing was dropping the volume halfway through the opening volley of the development, only to bring the level back up at the end of the phrase. Perhaps he did this to draw attention to the woodwinds in the passage along with the strings, but whatever the reason, it was a mannerism that didn’t shed much light. It was the only misstep in a performance that otherwise had the measure of this masterpiece.

Isabelle Faust played a ferociously concentrated rendition of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Instead of pouring energy into a big, flashy tone, Faust saved her energy for expressive attacks, matching Labadie’s general concept of minimal vibrato, except at key expressive moments. At such points, her intensity dramatically etched the solo. The first movement, like every one here, kept moving along urgently. Faust did relax with the more lyrical second theme, though Labadie did not always match her whispered tone in the quietest sequences. The only disappointment was Faust’s decision to charge through the solo cadenza in tempo, missing the sense of fantasy that others have found. Faust’s violin sang the slow movement affectingly, and the scherzo-like finale flew, light as a feather.

For an encore, Faust went even further into the world of near inaudibility, playing György Kurtág’s Doloroso for solo violin, and Faust’s playing was a potent question mark amid the evening’s assured statements.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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