In Cleveland, bold rethinking— in the second half, anyway

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Adés, Bach: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 11.10.2019. (MSJ)

Kirill Gerstein
Photo: Marco Borggreve

Brahms – Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90
Adés – Piano Concerto (2018)
Bach – Orchestral Suite No.3 in D major BWV 1068

On his latest visit with the Cleveland Orchestra, Kirill Gerstein brought his new commission to town — the Piano Concerto by British composer Thomas Adés. It is intriguing, with more going on than can be absorbed at first glance, but ultimately a compelling experience, particularly with the solid support of Alan Gilbert, a conductor at home in contemporary music.

The first movement is dense, and if at times the large orchestra overwhelms the athletic piano part, the overall feel is one of high spirits. Gerstein relished the octave cadenza, which showed off his ability to be riveting when a score turns angular. The piece really snaps into focus with the slow movement, a mesmerizing processional where the piano’s chords are punctuated by gamelan-style tuned gongs. The main theme feels like a traditional romantic piano concerto that was stretched out on a rack.

The finale tumbles out with an almost comical main motif, but then Adés executes a brilliant surprise, dropping back to a grave passage reminiscent of the slow movement, then fusing the slow portion and that humorous main theme together,  in a moment to send chills up the back of the listener’s neck. The piece hurtles to a rollicking close, and was warmly received by the Cleveland audience.

Considering his reputation in modern scores, Gilbert’s closer was unexpected: Bach’s third orchestral suite. But it was just as striking as the Adés, for Gilbert had clearly considered the work anew, electing to pare the ensemble down to just 14 strings (eight violins, three violas, two cellos, and a bass), three trumpets, two oboes, bassoon, harpsichord continuo, and timpani. Moreover, Gilbert had most of the players standing (as Apollo’s Fire does in Cleveland), though I have never seen the orchestra deployed this way. It appears to encourage the players to be more alert and more physical in their manner, less inhibited.

The overture was lithe, with the strings limiting vibrato to keep their tone lean, and acting concertmaster Peter Otto in several vigorous solos. Continuo harpsichordist Joela Jones supported the delightfully flowing Air by alternating between stops, one of which was a lovely lute, as if the baroque keyboard were a giant plucked instrument. The following Gavotte was perhaps a little staid, but the two closing dances were lively and graceful.

Would that the first half of the concert had such bold rethinking. Instead, Gilbert took the received tradition of how Brahms’s Third Symphony is supposed to be played, smoothed it out in a vaguely lyrical way, and set it in motion. The Cleveland Orchestra is, of course, not going to let it sound anything less than accomplished, but the results fell far short of conveying Brahms’s genius.

The first movement was barely allegro, let alone con brio. While anyone can see that Brahms’s orchestral coloring is autumnal, that doesn’t mean it has to sound like the last dregs of the season. It needs a bold, stirring approach, not a smoothed-over generality. The slow movement can be mysterious, but here it plodded along without any particular point of view. The third movement, marked poco allegro by the composer, was actually at a faster tempo than the first movement(!), sapping its beauty and throwing the overall architecture further out of whack. The finale started off with energy, but it wasn’t consistently maintained, so that the final wind-down of the coda didn’t much matter. Gilbert’s better work proves that he’s capable of being quite enterprising, so this limp Brahms was a disappointment.

Mark S. Jordan