Searing brilliance from Yuja Wang and Lorenzo Viotti in Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, Ravel: Yuja Wang (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Lorenzo Viotti (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 29.11.2019. (MSJ)

Yuja Wang

Prokofiev – Suite from The Love for Three Oranges
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor
Poulenc – Sinfonietta
RavelLa Valse

Good programming makes unexpected connections. While Poulenc and Rachmaninoff may stand at opposite poles stylistically, in this endlessly interesting Cleveland Orchestra concert they stood connected as conservative soul mates, while the other pieces moved boldly into strange new textures, even though they were written earlier. Everything on the menu was touched with searing brilliance.

Yuja Wang was a brilliant and compelling soloist, holding together Rachmaninoff’s uneven Fourth Piano Concerto to make a satisfying impact. The slow movement, in particular, was played without apology as first-rate, intense music. The episodic first movement was fired by Wang’s aggressive edge, which kept it from sagging. The finale remains the most flawed movement, with more busy passage work than true inspiration, but Wang kept it strongly on course, aided by the orchestra sounding completely engaged under guest conductor Lorenzo Viotti. As an encore, Wang offered the wistful Sgambati arrangement of a melody from Gluck’s Orpheus.

In his Cleveland debut, Viotti cut a strong profile — particularly impressive for a conductor only 29 years old. Prokofiev’s suite from The Love for Three Oranges is gloriously sarcastic with many moments of barbed wit. It has been a favorite of mine for years, and I have collected numerous recordings, but the problem is, it is highly difficult to conduct, play, and record. Conductors that push too hard end up hectoring, and few master the tricky transitions. Players lacking first-rate technique are cruelly exposed. And the dense orchestral textures can clot in concert halls that do not have clear sound.

All that said, this performance was a joy, offering the above elements in ideal form. Severance Hall’s acoustics were clear but warm, cushioning the scoring’s harsh edge. The Cleveland players were eager to demonstrate their spectacular grip, and the result was better than any version I had ever heard. The only misalignment — and a very minor one — came during the quiet opening of the ‘Love Scene’. Viotti guided without either overloading or pulling punches. The ‘Scene infernale’ was downright slithery, and the famous march was kept broad enough to make it more grim than manic, though the following scherzo was very crisply dispatched. Both the opening and closing movements put more emphasis on color than speed, making the most of Prokofiev’s wild details. This was an outstanding contribution to the orchestra’s ongoing Prokofiev retrospective.

Poulenc’s Sinfonietta started life as a BBC commission for a short symphony. It outgrew its plan, but the composer never changed the title, perhaps seeing the overall work as too lightweight for a symphony. Whatever the case, it is an interesting score, one of Poulenc’s last bits of breeziness before he entered his solemn later phase. When one listens closely, though, to the Sinfonietta, the shadows can be heard collecting in the transitions and background. Perhaps this is the reason the piece has never become one of Poulenc’s hits — there is an unease, an elusiveness that nags the bright surfaces, not unlike the transformation that Rachmaninoff was going through in his darkening piano concerto. Viotti emphasized the mix of emotions, not trying to make it seem like a carefree memento of Poulenc’s youth, for it isn’t. It came across as a work of mixed emotions, and the stronger for it — some 70 years after George Szell led its US premiere in this very hall.

The biggest showpiece was Ravel’s La Valse, and Viotti could hardly be more different from Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst, who led the score last season during the televised opening night concert. I sensed a time difference of roughly three minutes between the two performances — significant in such a relatively short work.

Welser-Möst put his emphasis on a forward-pressing anxiety, barely slowing for asides, driving relentlessly toward the final implosion. By contrast, Viotti started patiently, slowing building tension and tempo, pausing to savor exquisite moments. There was analytical clarity, but it wasn’t cold. Rather, Viotti seemed fascinated by the pathology on the way to the final collapse, whereas Welser-Möst was more goal-oriented in rushing headlong toward the end.

Viotti’s fascination ensured that the numerous string glissandi were observed in all their creepy glory, that all momentary interruptions of the flow were explored, and that the orchestral color was dazzling. In the closing bars, Viotti didn’t push to the ragged edge, but demonstrated skillful control, without podium grandstanding — an impressive debut, that makes one wish to hear the conductor in larger works.

 Mark Sebastian Jordan

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