Glorious Grieg and disappointing Schmidt at Cleveland’s Blossom Music Festival

United StatesUnited States Blossom Music Festival 2022 [3]Grieg, Schmidt: Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Jonathan Berman (conductor). Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 6.8.2022. (MSJ)

Cédric Tiberghien

Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor

Schmidt – Symphony No.4 in C major

On paper, it seemed like it should work for me. I have a strong regard for late- and post-romantic orchestral works, and the gods know that I spend much of my time as a writer looking around at the crumbling shambles of western civilization, lamenting the loss of respect for learning. On paper, I should be Franz Schmidt’s target audience, for that is exactly what his Fourth Symphony does: it looks sadly at a world beloved to the composer being irrevocably lost. In Schmidt’s case, it was 1930s Germany and Austria, but the correlation to the early twenty-first century, just about everywhere, is obvious enough.

The problem is, it is not that good a piece of music. Conductor Jonathan Berman, who was making his Cleveland Orchestra debut with this concert, would surely disagree strenuously. And former Plain Dealer critic Donald Rosenberg might disagree, as he praised Schmidt’s Book of the Seven Seals quite highly when the Clevelanders played it downtown in 2001, the same concert that made me want to pull my hair out and flee the concert hall.

Attending this concert in an official capacity as reviewer, I certainly wasn’t going to do that, but I couldn’t help but look longingly after the 25 or so people who bailed from the front half of the Blossom pavilion as the Schmidt piece continued. I didn’t turn to see how many more fled from the back of the pavilion, nor from out on the lawn.

It is a shame that I don’t connect with the piece, because I want to support any deviation from the usual summer-festival-greatest-hits programming. But there are lesser-known pieces which are a far better match to a balmy summer night than Schmidt 4. It makes sense that it was programmed by Berman, who is an outspoken advocate of Schmidt’s music. But I don’t think he converted many new fans on this occasion, though existing Schmidt fans were surely fulfilled by the serious and dedicated performance.

Naturally, any conductor would love to be perceived as playing a key role in moving a composer into the mainstream. Berman isn’t even the only one at it these days. Semyon Bychkov has made a number of recordings, and Cleveland Orchestra music director (and, perhaps not coincidentally, one of Berman’s teachers), Franz Welser-Möst, has performed and recorded Schmidt a number of times. But, unless my ears deceive me, it simply isn’t going to happen. Mahler’s layered emotionality overcame his rambling to make his music popular, and Bruckner’s spirituality outweighs his obtuseness for enough fans that his music has become largely accepted, even in the US, long a Bruckner holdout. Schmidt, however, lacks a compelling feature to override his muddy orchestration and bookish counterpoint to appeal to wide audiences.

One of the problems with Schmidt’s Fourth is that it really has nowhere to go. It starts with a stark, chromatically falling trumpet solo, already despairing, played fantastically with absolute assurance on this occasion by Lyle Steelman. The first movement meditates gloomily on that subject and a slightly contrasting one, but seems to wander aimlessly, traveling nowhere. The second movement actually caused me to feel some flickers of emotion as the lyrical main theme – introduced by Mark Kosower’s gorgeous cello solo – is overcome by a militant middle section. But then the following movement, ostensibly a scherzo, proves to have neither much wit nor much spirit, noodling along as a dogged exercise in textbook counterpoint. The finale returns to the first movement’s material, randomly throwing in an abrupt calamity as if this pile of sodden debris could somehow collapse further.

There is no question that the Cleveland Orchestra gave Schmidt the honor of exquisite playing, and Berman clearly knows the work, directing it imperiously. My antipathy to the piece prevents me from commenting further on Berman’s concept, other than to say the third movement could have provided more relief if the tempo would have been faster, but Berman correctly judged the acoustic of the Blossom pavilion to be too richly reverberant for a snappier speed, forcing it to remain moderate. For those who have the gene that makes such turgid music speak to them, it may well have been an extraordinary evening. For the rest of us, it was at least interesting to observe how the piece held a few audience members enthralled, while many others fidgeted in their seats, longing for the closing measure. As always, I appreciate the opportunity to revisit a rare work like this, which I have tried (and failed) to appreciate through recordings over the years. Hearing it live tells me beyond a doubt that I simply don’t like it.

So, despite my desire to advocate for lesser-known works, I must report that my glorious musical thrill of the evening came in an old chestnut. Indeed, the Grieg Piano Concerto was such a chestnut that, in Cleveland at least, it hasn’t been showing up that much in recent decades. I have only encountered it live in Cleveland once before, in a fine 2014 performance by Garrick Ohlsson, with Osmo Vänskä conducting (click here). This performance by Cédric Tiberghien was even better, with an incisive first movement culminating in a spellbinding cadenza. This was the second time I have heard Tiberghien in Cleveland, and he proves to be a compelling soloist. He doesn’t exaggerate, yet his dynamics are sculpted with exquisite clarity. He found weight in the first movement without ever pulling back the tempo from a crisp allegro, while allowing room in transitions. The bird-like figurations of the slow movement were ecstatic, and the finale combined stomping dance with reflective grandeur. Tiberghien was attentive to soloists in the orchestra and to Berman. The performance culminated in a wave of energy that brought the audience to its feet, drawing Grieg’s lyric ‘To Spring’ as an encore. Tiberghien even received a spontaneous bonus ovation when he came out to sit in the audience after intermission to listen to the Schmidt. No word on his reaction to the morose symphony.

Poor Schmidt. If he hadn’t been so stubbornly set in his ways, perhaps he could have learned a thing or two from Grieg, such as how to set aside one’s learning (and one’s depression), in order to ride inspiration to visionary heights. And when you think about it, that’s really what we need when the old order is collapsing and a new world is being formed.

The true classics live on.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

1 thought on “Glorious Grieg and disappointing Schmidt at Cleveland’s Blossom Music Festival”

  1. Extraordinary comments about one of the greatest symphonic masterpieces of the 20th Century! The incredible opening trumpet theme’s melodic structure is so subtle it’s influence can be discerned in almost every passage; as for the sublime elegy and ensuing funeral march – this section ranks with Beethoven. It’s a work of startling harmonic and tonal complexity, perfectly scored, inexpressibly beautiful and superbly inventive.


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