United States Blossom Music Festival  – Barber, Mendelssohn, Sibelius: Stephen Hough (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / James Gaffigan (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 18.8.2018. (MSJ)
Barber – Essay No.2, Op.17
Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43
With conductor James Gaffigan shaping phrasing aggressively to emphasize the drama, the Cleveland Orchestra gave a strongly committed reading of Samuel Barber’s second essay for orchestra. In most places, particularly where crisp chords ring out, the work made a brilliant impact. Perhaps the reverberant acoustic of the Blossom Pavilion blurred textures in the central fugato string passages, but it’s hard to imagine them emerging more effectively at a slower tempo. Gaffigan went for broad strokes and made the piece — one of three such essays Barber composed throughout his career — visceral and compelling.
Pianist Stephen Hough is likewise a bold shaper of gestures, and his rendition of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto was sharply characterized. As is often pointed out, Mendelssohn was the most classical of the early romantic composers, and Hough made sure that one didn’t forget the composer’s emotion and temperament. Gaffigan matched Hough in propelling the concerto’s first theme with stormy energy, then stepped back to let the pianist ease into the second one, maintaining the basic tempo, yet allowing moments of repose and transition at the ends of phrases.
The slow movement was luminous, with Hough’s delicate textures contrasting with the glowing warmth of the violas. Only a handful of unusually bronchial audience members marred the loveliness — they were poised to bark at the quietest moments — plus a distant firework display apparently the next valley or two over.
The finale was ebullient, though kept with one foot firmly in the world of German romanticism and not glibly tossed off as a proto-Offenbach galop. Hough made the most of the dramatic return of the first movement’s second theme, before he and the orchestra sprinted to the end, and rewarded the vigorous applause with a refreshingly understated Clair de lune by Debussy.
Like Barber and Mendelssohn, Sibelius was also a romantic composer with a strong classical streak. But Gaffigan’s leadership in the composer’s second symphony didn’t keep the large structural paragraphs clearly in sight, and the spirited but not always motivated changes in tempo didn’t help. For instance, although the opening sequence contains some tempo shifts, it doesn’t contain as many as were heard on this occasion. All the gear-shifting compromised the focus. And so it continued: outward busyness but without a strong inner logic.
The second movement was peculiar: Gaffigan kept building up, then pulling back into a sort of generic grandeur every time one of Sibelius’s uncompromising climaxes approached. This softening of punches kept it from being the harrowing experience it could have been. Wisely, the scherzo was paced moderately, for anything faster would turn into a fuzzy blur in the Blossom acoustic, but in the trio the tempo wandered erratically. The Finale began to generate a more compelling energy, though there were still moments of flailing and grimacing from Gaffigan that weren’t reflected in the orchestral results. But the Cleveland Orchestra in full voice is still one of the mightiest sounds on this planet, so the ending was stirring and brought the crowd to its feet.
None of this is to say that the performance was a bad, or that Gaffigan is deficient. He’s a fine conductor who has led many satisfying readings with this and other orchestras. But Sibelius requires discipline and ferocity that weren’t there as they were during the Barber. There, Gaffigan was inside the music. In the Sibelius, he was outside looking in. In that, he’s not alone. Like Mahler — though for very different reasons — Sibelius is a tough nut to crack. Though many conduct his work, only a few unlock his secret voice.
Mark Sebastian Jordan
Mark Sebastian Jordan’s reviewing activity in 2018 is supported by an Individual Excellence grant in Criticism from the Ohio Arts Council.