Impressive debut by Thomas Søndergård in Cleveland

GermanyGermany Britten, Stravinsky: Stefan Jackiw (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 25.11.2022. (MSJ)

Thomas Søndergård © Andy Buchanan

Britten – Violin Concerto

StravinskyThe Firebird (complete ballet)

Okay, critics are never supposed to be less than adoring of the received canon of masterpieces. But I am going to let you in on a little secret: the complete score to Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird is basically the director’s cut of the ever-popular Firebird Suite. It is a fun luxury, without being necessary. In the complete score, you get the scenes of flat-out genius highlighted in the suite, along with a lot – and I mean a lot – of connective material, most of which consists of a boatload of tremolos in the strings and exotic, bird-like flourishes from the woodwinds. It was Stravinsky’s first major piece, and he had not yet grasped that the connective tissue needs to be as compelling as the main scenes. That was to come, with a vengeance, in his next ballet score, Petrushka, one of the greatest things Stravinsky or anyone else ever wrote.

That being said, it is absolutely worth hearing the entire score of The Firebird just to witness the transformation the young Stravinsky made from speaking with the borrowed voice of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, his teacher, to finding his own voice, which finally emerges in the infernal dance of King Katschei near the end. The performance of the complete score, led by Thomas Søndergård in his Cleveland debut, was adept at showing this transformation, becoming more and more alert and involving as it went on. It was interesting to see that Søndergård intentionally made many of his movements vague in the gloomy introduction, forcing each instrument or section to emerge uncertainly from the murk. If you looked very, very closely you could see the pulse of the 6/8 timing still ticking away in the conductor’s miniscule movements, but the bigger gestures were intentionally vague.

As the work progressed and became brighter, so did Søndergård’s movements. That is a risky approach to take, especially with a group like the Cleveland Orchestra which is famous for its fantastic precision, but it really paid off here. As things became more alive, more alert, the fabled wonder of Cleveland’s playing gelled into thrilling shape and grew more compelling from moment to moment. A sort of electric current began to generate from the ‘Infernal Dance’ on, making the final 15 minutes riveting.

Numerous soloists along the way offered breathtaking moments, particularly the orchestra’s four kings of the woodwinds: Joshua Smith (flute), Frank Rosenwein (oboe), Afendi Yusuf (clarinet) and John Clouser (bassoon), along with the princely playing of principal French horn Nathaniel Silberschlag. Without question, it was the entire orchestra playing as a unit and listening to each other closely that brought this to life. Søndergård deployed a full range of dynamics, from barely audible through shaking the rafters of the hall. It was an impressive accomplishment and an impressive Cleveland debut.

The first half of the concert was by no means negligible, if by no means as easy to please. Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto is of considerable interest, even if it has been eclipsed by the other works he was writing under the looming shadow of approaching war in the late 1930s. One can, however, feel the chemistry burbling just beneath the surface of the concerto, the same volatile brew that was simultaneously bubbling up in the song cycle Les Illuminations and was about to erupt with terrifying force in his Sinfonia da Requiem.

In the concerto, the first movement starts almost casually before proceeding to a mischievous and eccentric scherzo, followed by the sudden emergence of a mournful passacaglia in the finale. Taken all together, it doesn’t exceed the sum of its parts though there are many vivid moments along the way. To hear it is an interesting treat, so thanks to Stefan Jackiw for undertaking this score with complete commitment. There was no hesitation in his intense attack, and Jackiw was adept at making many of the sighing passages speak in an almost human voice. It is something I have been delighted to see in the work of some young instrumentalists these days, that attempt to get beyond beautiful, perfect technique and actually make the instrument somehow speak in a very human manner. That is what a classic pianist like Arthur Schnabel did in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, but in the decades after Schnabel was gone, it became a rare commodity, replaced instead by the high-gloss sheen factories of the conservatories.

Jackiw doesn’t play that game. There are certainly violinists around who make cleaner, prettier, safer sounds, but there aren’t many who communicate the way Jackiw does. And he did much to make the Britten concerto come to life. Particularly impressive was the long and discursive cadenza. If ultimately it doesn’t quite come off, it is not for a lack of commitment in this performance. We have been lucky, after not having heard it in Cleveland until 2014, to have had a number of attempts to audition it over the last few years, the most recent of which was with soloist Vilde Frang during the Blossom Music Festival in 2018. Frang’s tone was bigger and more luxurious, but Jackiw brought out the human element even more.

By no means a mere accompanist in the Britten, Søndergård vividly sculpted sound around the soloist and engaged with Jackiw to make the most of the work. What was clearest after this warmly received concert is that we will be eager to hear more in Cleveland from both these artists.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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