Barber’s Violin Concerto Shows Cleveland’s Depth of Talent

United StatesUnited States Blossom Festival 5: Jung-Min Amy Lee (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Asher Fisch (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 10.8.2019. (MSJ)

Barber – Violin Concerto Op.14
Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor Op.68

Franz Liszt’s tone poem Mazeppa is not his most frequently encountered piece, though it isn’t one of the almost forgotten ones, either. It depends on enthusiastic energy to power its storytelling, and with guest conductor Asher Fisch, the Cleveland Orchestra fulfilled that requirement. Fisch, perhaps most known for the distinguished Wagner Ring Cycle he recorded in Australia a few years back, proved a sure-footed guide. He led with ample energy, counterbalancing it with a seriousness of purpose that refused to let gestures descend into mimicry. There will always be a debate on how best to perform this score. Total removal of Liszt’s barnstorming showmanship wouldn’t be true to the artist’s reality, though sheer showboating can likewise miss Liszt’s serious aspirations. Fisch shrewdly balanced the extremes, pointing out details as much as possible in the composer’s impasto scoring.

In Samuel Barber’s only violin concerto, the orchestra’s associate concertmaster Jung-Min Amy Lee was the winning soloist. Amply supported by the conductor and the musicians, Lee let her own distinctively deep tone speak for itself, making no attempt at putting on a thousand-watt glow like some famous soloists. Instead of supersaturated radiance, Lee focused on complex shades of mixed emotions — very true to Barber’s aesthetic. Fisch was with her every step of the way, keeping the first movement agile and alert beneath its surface warmth. A richer glow appeared in the slow movement, followed by the daredevil challenges of the spiky finale. The only possible disappointment was that Lee didn’t offer an encore, even after repeated bows at the end. Perhaps she didn’t want to pull any more focus from her colleagues than necessary, but her world-class performance was a testament to the quality of the players.

Closing the evening strongly was a Cleveland standby, Brahms’s First Symphony. Music director Franz Welser-Möst has adopted a fast and lithe, almost chamber-scale rendition — approach that has its strengths — but it works best in the intimate acoustic of Severance Hall. But in the spacious Blossom Pavilion, a bigger-boned approach is needed, which Fisch provided. Within a traditional framework, he kept things moving fast enough to never coagulate into lumpy textures, but broad enough to lend an epic feeling.

In the sustained (but not slow) introduction, Fisch shrewdly matched the pulse to the first movement’s main theme. I do like bending the phrases a little bit — shaping them by their own center of gravity instead of by the bar line — but again, the conductor seemed determined to find balance between free and metronomic. Happily, he skipped the first movement repeat, because the main tempo picked up a little extra momentum going through the last part of the exposition. The development built up a decent head of steam, though Fisch seemed a little reluctant to drive it home at its peak. Frank Rosenwein’s oboe solos were plaintive.

The Andante sostenuto slow movement was flexible and lyrical, avoiding the usual tendency to bog down. The solo from acting concertmaster Peter Otto was affectingly sweet. The third movement interlude, led by Afendi Yusuf’s elegant clarinet, was flowingly charming, only gradually revealing its heroic underpinnings. The finale bent over a little too far to accommodate tradition, with the conductor shifting tempos in the famous Beethoven-inspired main theme — more broadly than his swifter pace elsewhere. It isn’t easy to unite those sections, but it can be done, and Fisch left the music to speak for itself instead of ramrodding the climax.

After so much careful balancing, in the coda his tempos were all over the place — first speeding up, then hitting the brakes for the traditional (yawn) slow chorale, followed by an even faster tempo, forcing a partial slowdown in the last few pages. If the ending wasn’t ideal, it was still quite dramatic and effective in context — better than the heavy version in Cleveland two years ago under Mikko Franck, and a strong alternative to Welser-Möst’s relentlessly classical bent.

 Mark Sebastian Jordan

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