United States Various: Imogen Cooper (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Jane Glover (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 24.3.2022. (MSJ)
Britten – Suite on English Folk Tunes, ‘A time there was’ Op.90
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.22 in E-flat major K.482
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Mozart – Symphony No.38 in D major K.504, ‘Prague’
The conductor was key to this intriguing pairing of Mozart with British composers. Jane Glover has appeared previously with the Cleveland Orchestra in distinguished performances, but it is only now that we get her calling card, as it were. She is well-known for her years leading the London Mozart Players, and her general involvement with modern instrument performances of Classical and Baroque music. But this concert gave her an opportunity to present works from her native country, which is most welcome, for British music is an area where the Cleveland Orchestra still lags despite improvements in recent years.
The concert opened with the Cleveland premiere of Benjamin Britten’s final orchestral work, the Suite on English Folk Tunes, subtitled ‘A time there was’. The subtitle comes from a Thomas Hardy poem that Britten set to music for Peter Pears, his beloved partner. As the excellent program note by Michael Cirigliano II explained, the nostalgic work seems bound to both Britten’s love for Pears and his knowledge of his own mortality as his health began failing in the mid-1970s. Those emotions are potent in the final movement of the suite, where Glover gave ample space to Robert Walter’s poignant English horn solo. Before that, though, Britten’s feisty, frisky and acerbic side was still present. The surprise, mid-air ending of the fourth movement, ‘Hunt the Squirrel’, drew a round of chuckles from the audience. Any doubts about Glover outside of early music were quickly dispelled by her assurance and by her willingness to not shrink from Britten’s tart harmonies, an essential part of his way with folk music.
Imogen Cooper was the soloist for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.22. She is an outstanding pianist, albeit one who flies under the radar of those easily impressed by rhetorical stage manner. Cooper needs none of that: she simply plays. But she plays in a way that hearkens back to those pianists who convey a sense of thinking or even speaking through the notes, such as Artur Schnabel or Alfred Brendel. Her tone was clearly projected without exaggeration, and she sorted textures to give her solos an irresistible flow. Glover and the orchestra matched every turn of phrase with a similar poise. It was an ideal performance, one that speaks to the long history of collaboration between Cooper and Glover, and one hopes to see Cooper visiting Cleveland more regularly in the future.
The second half of the concert opened with perhaps the least expected work on the program, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. One can easily perceive an esthetic link between Mozart and Britten based on wit and lucidity. Vaughan Williams can be witty at times, but his strong suit is more along the lines of atmospheric mysticism. Pairing the piece with Mozart’s Prague Symphony was an enterprising move on Glover’s part, and the Mozart actually fit fine, considering that it is the gateway into his later works, the ones where harmonic mists and shadows can suddenly rise, giving the music an ambiguous complexity.
Such complexity is at the heart of the fantasia, based on a hymn tune by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, and one that holds uneasy resonance at this moment: ‘Why fum’th in fight’ with its bitter observation, ‘The kings arise, the lords devise, In counsels met thereto, Against the Lord with false accord, Against His Christ they go’. Atop that unease is the layering of Renaissance recollection against early twentieth-century harmonic volatility, and skewing it all is Vaughan Williams’s own agnostic uncertainty. The piece is one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century, and it was a shock to read the small print and find it had been 50 years since the Cleveland Orchestra’s last performance of it in Severance during their season. There was one presentation over a decade ago during the summer festival at Blossom Music Center, but even that is hardly adequate. Simply put, there is arguably no greater composer who has been more neglected by the Cleveland Orchestra than Ralph Vaughan Williams. A few appearances of his music in recent years give a hint this may be changing, and it is not a moment too soon. It is unusual for a piece that ends quietly to be given a cheering ovation by the audience, but that is exactly what the Vaughan Williams received. Glover’s performance was sweeping and surging, led with big gestures but ones that were absolutely focused on the music at hand.
The conductor likewise kept an eloquent focus for Mozart’s Prague Symphony, using a fairly large body of strings and encouraging them to dig in deep and present a gorgeous, full sound, tempered by judicious application of vibrato. Glover had the timpani use modern, soft-headed sticks in the grand introduction, switching to harder sticks thereafter. She also seemed particularly attentive to the shifting moods of the piece, so akin to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, turning from sly to anxious to despairing and back to comic within seconds. The slow movement was Shakespearean in its blend of gravity and earthy vitality, and the finale moved like the wind, Glover holding the reins lightly to let the Cleveland Orchestra do what they do best: play.
Mark Sebastian Jordan