In Cleveland, Smetana Saves the Day

United StatesUnited States Glanert, Bruch, Smetana: Katia Labèque, Marielle Labèque (pianos), Cleveland Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 9.5.2019. (MSJ)

Detlev GlanertWeites Land: Musik mit Brahms (2013)
Bruch – Concerto for Two Pianos Op.88a
Smetana – Three Symphonic Poems from Má Vlast: Vyšehrad, Vltava (Die Moldau), Šárka

It is often interesting to hear forgotten byways of the repertory, particularly ones that disappeared for a period of time. I wish I could report that the restored original version of Max Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos provided a notable diversion, but it does not, despite the game advocacy of sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque. Three of the work’s four movements would be suitable enough for generic background music, because other than a vague warmth, they supply even less interest than the composer’s two violin concertos — neither of which ranks high in my pantheon.

Only the third movement rises to a more communicative plane. Warmly romantic, the movement would stand nicely on its own outside the concerto, which Bruch adapted from his Third Orchestral Suite. For many years, only a simplified version of the concerto’s solo parts was heard, as arranged by the original dedicatees, Rose and Ottilie Sutro. But in the 1970s, the original parts were discovered and published.

The Labèques have nothing to fear from the greater technical demands of the original solo parts, though all too often Bruch gives them little more than decoration and scales — lots of scales. The sisters were supported ably by guest conductor Semyon Bychkov and the Cleveland Orchestra. Suffice it to say, however, that the Labèques’ encore, ‘Le Jardin Feerique’ from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite had more substance in its three minutes than its predecessor had in almost thirty.

Much more interesting was the opening, Weites Land: Musik mit Brahms (2013) from Detlev Glanert, a German composer little-known in the United States. Evoking ‘the Brahmsian smell of marshland and wide skies’ in northern Germany, the piece starts with gestures derived from Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, but takes them different places, brooding in a richly cinematic manner. While the majority of the score is lyrical, there is also a considerable tension that at times erupts in a more angular manner. It is the sort of music to which any listener can imagine his or her own story, quite independent of the Brahmsian roots. It certainly whetted the appetite for more from the composer, and Bychkov was a strong and convincing advocate.

In recent years, the Russian-born conductor has been directing the Czech Philharmonic, to considerable acclaim. He closed this concert with a portion of a Czech classic, the first three sections of Smetana’s patriotic cycle Má Vlast (My Fatherland), a set of six Lisztian tone poems.

Bychkov was a little more broad than most with the opening Vyšehrad, the Mighty Fortress, which evokes the medieval castle that overlooks Prague. He  found grandeur that a more straightforward reading can miss, though it can’t be denied that this first section is slighter than the other two. Nonetheless, the opening strumming of two unaccompanied harps is a classic moment, all the more evocative live, and Bychkov’s emphasis on the fairytale atmosphere made it more vivid than usual.

Vltava, well-known in German as Die Moldau, is probably Smetana’s most famous work, which too often slips into autopilot as a catalog of pleasant scene paintings. Bychkov resolutely refused to let it sound hackneyed. He delved into each turn of phrase as if hearing it for the first time, relishing the shape and development of Smetana’s ideas, turning in the best reading I’ve heard in quite a few years.

Likewise for Šárka, the Warrior Princess, Bychkov left room for fresh evocation, only driving hard in the closing pages to the fiery end. The orchestra sounded rich and colorful under Bychkov’s baton, delivering full justice to Smetana’s fervent score.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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