United States Benjamin, R. Schumann, Dvořák: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 27.10.2022. (MSJ)
Benjamin – Ringed by the Flat Horizon
R. Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Dvořák – Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70
In theory, it sounds easy: figure out what makes the music work, learn how to play it that way, and remember to put some heart into it. When applied practically to the music of Robert Schumann, it becomes such a vast task that most musicians don’t bother making the thousands of decisions per page it takes to make his music come to life. I know of no great composer more poorly served in modern performances than Schumann.
Some of that is, indeed, Schumann’s fault. Yes, as his defenders point out, his orchestrations do, in fact, sound better on period instruments than on beefier sounding modern instruments, but a glance at his scores shows the obsessive tendencies of a composer who suffered from insecurity and instability. Schumann is far from being the only great composer who overstuffed his scores because of doubt: greats like Wagner, Brahms and even Richard Strauss have their moments of bloat. But Schumann needs thoughtful sorting, editorial decisions on which notes should receive subtle emphasis in order to harmonically steer his works.
Kirill Gerstein is the sort of pianist willing to do the work, but he is also able to put that intellect in service of the music’s emotion in performance. Schumann’s familiar piano concerto is typically given a warm, genial rendition with everything blurred by great swaths of sustaining pedal. It leaves a somewhat vague but warm feeling, and that is often enough to charm an audience.
Gerstein’s performance with the Cleveland Orchestra was something else again. I suppose it might not be everyone’s cup of tea (or, for those who prefer a lot of sustaining pedal, tub of gravy). But I found it revelatory. Every phrase had been weighted to determine which notes in chords and passages were the ones that moved the coherent argument of the music forward, and Gerstein achieved that careful balance with an eye on the long-term growth, ebb and flow of the music. That, in itself, could be illuminating enough. But he then went the extra distance to use his brilliant analysis to power the emotional surge of this music.
Instead of blurring everything, Gerstein barely used the pedal at all, blowing away fog and cobwebs with a tone that at times used a flinty edge to make it clear that Schumann truly was struck by genius in this music. The harmonies were adventurous and lively, the sense of rhythm lightly sprung. The first movement was alternately stormy and introspective, but Gerstein kept it unified as one flowing arc, supported by the active participation of conductor Edward Gardner, who refused to just beat time passively. The Cleveland Orchestra was energized by the insightful pianist and engaged conductor, turning in a glorious performance. The slow movement was poised, with Gerstein often turning to engage personally with the players. The third movement combined virtuosity with stirring surge. I have heard this concerto live, performed by such luminaries as Radu Lupu, Leif Ove Andsnes and David Fray among others. Simply put, this was better. To display his technique, Gerstein offered Chopin’s ‘Grande Valse’ in A-flat as an encore.
The perfection of the Schumann should not eclipse a strong Cleveland debut by British conductor Edward Gardner. He opened the concert by making a few well-focused comments on George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon, the orchestral work which launched the composer’s career in 1980. While Benjamin himself has conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, this was the first time his genesis work was performed here, and Gardner helpfully pointed out the piece’s relationship to Messiaen and Sibelius. He guided the orchestra through the sometimes-thorny tone poem meditatively depicting the approach and passing of a desert thunderstorm. The orchestra tore into it with commitment, some string players having to tear broken hairs from their bows due to the intensity of attack. Principal cello Mark Kosower offered lyrical solos between stormy bursts. Particularly vivid was the col legno (played with the wood of the bow) hailstorm depicted by the low strings near the end. Throughout, Gardner kept an eye out for the woodwinds, making sure they never got lost in the rich textures.
Gardner led Dvořák’s Seventh from memory, continuing his attention to the winds, sorting textures for clarity, while encouraging warmth and weight from the strings in appropriate places. His general pace for the first movement was broad, with subtle accelerations as turbulence grew. His time beating was clear and large, designed for practicality not flash. The slow movement effectively countered surge and spark, though I felt Gardner did flow a little too smoothly past the harmonically strange chords which twice bring up unanswerable questions. One can obviously enough point out that those chords are an imitation of similar ones in the slow movement of Brahms’s Third, but that doesn’t change the fact that they need some kind of emphasis or attention. Their spooky strangeness seems to foreshadow Dvořák’s later folkloric tone poems, an important but rarely heard succession to his symphonies.
The Scherzo was poised and fleet, with well-sprung rhythms carrying it forward, though more could have been done with the cross-rhythms typical of the Czech furiant dance. Gardner chose not to mark the syncopations strongly, using momentum over interruption, a valid choice, though not the only one. The Finale built up a good head of steam despite slowing down for the genial second theme on both of its appearances. Those with long memories in Cleveland may recall the way former music director Christoph von Dohnányi charged through this movement, a man on a mission to not release tension until the final chord. Gardner didn’t push as aggressively, though his slowing in the coda was effective. He seemed to display more chemistry with the orchestra than Iván Fischer did in this work, which was the most recent time I heard it live in Cleveland, quite a few years back.
It may prove worthwhile for the Cleveland Orchestra to build a relationship with Gardner. Not a flashy, headline-grabbing conductor, he nonetheless may yet prove to be the sort of talented but serious and dedicated musician who grows into greatness as the years go by while the flashy stars burn out.
Mark Sebastian Jordan