* Samuel Barber: Essay No. 2, op. 17
* Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in d, op. 47
* Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, "Enigma," op. 36
Valeriy Sokolov, violin
The Cleveland Orchestra/Ward Stare (Barber), David Zinman
August 25, 2007
Every time I'm in my home town of Cleveland, I have to hear the Orchestra.
Not to do so would be like forgoing a pastrami on rye in New York. After
all, I lost interest in the Indians when they traded Kenny Lofton to
Atlanta, and the art museum has mostly shut down for massive expansion.
Besides, I know the orchestra better than I know anything else about the
area. In fact, I can call the roll of the entire woodwind section from
memory, but I can't tell you the name of the current mayor.
During the summer, the orchestra plays south of the city at Blossom
Music Center, near Akron, a gorgeous outdoor facility with superb
acoustics, built in the Szell era, because Szell wouldn't put up with
less. The auditorium looks a bit like a giant, half-open clam shell,
facing a hillside slope for lawn-chair listeners. There are lots of
picnic spots as well. It's a great way to spend a summer evening with
music-loving friends. At least two local cookbooks have been devoted
to picnic recipes at Blossom.
Each time I go back, I must admit I worry. Can the orchestra remain as
good as I remember? Let's face it. Very few things stay as good, and
even fewer become better than you remember. And each time -- no matter
who's conducting, no matter what the program -- the Cleveland Orchestra
is so much better than I remember, its virtues improved. I don't know
what it's like for those fortunates who get to hear them week after week.
Is it possible to get jaded or, worse, bored with players who keep raising
their own extremely high standard? I haven't heard the Berlin Philharmonic
live, and I always want to judge an orchestra in concert. As much as I
like and need recordings, I consider "live" the best way to hear music.
I can say, however, that the Berliner recordings don't sound this good.
The program, for Cleveland at any rate, ran a bit to the unusual, with
the Barber and the Elgar, not really staples of the orchestra's repertoire.
However, the Cleveland has had a long and wonderful acquaintance with
the music of Sibelius.
Barber wrote his Second Essay (of three) in 1942, at the urging of Bruno
Walter. All three of Barber's essays stand near the top of his output,
and all three appear at different phases in his career. The First belongs
to his youthful period that saw the School for Scandal Overture, the
First Symphony, and the Violin Concerto. The Third comes from his late
period, after the critical firestorm (and the ensuing creative trauma)
over his opera Antony and Cleopatra. The Second more or less inaugurates
his middle period -- a superb melding of his essentially Romantic lyricism
with Modernist verve. Works in this period include the Cello Concerto,
Second Symphony, Prayers of Kierkegaard, Piano Sonata, Toccata Festiva,
Capricorn Concerto, Piano Concerto, and Antony and Cleopatra, a masterpiece
that waits revival.
Although the work sports two main themes, they both grow out of a
single idea, heard at the beginning on the flute. The idea sounds like
a song, but if you take the trouble to listen a bit harder, it seems a
bit intractable to development. It jumps around a lot, for one thing,
by wide intervals. The soloist tamed it wonderfully well and set us up
for a performance that was, despite the pyrotechnics of the piece, lyrical
above all. I've heard this score many times by orchestras of all ranks
and can honestly say I've never encountered a bad performance. Cleveland,
however, outdid anything I've heard -- the difference between miraculous
and extremely well-done. Every phrases came from somewhere and went to
somewhere else. Each phrase had its own little arch, and each of these
hooked on to the next to form larger phrases and larger arches. It's
as if each player knew and obsessed about the score as much as the
conductor. The strings sang with an aching yearning and rich tone. The
winds in the fugato played not only with rhythmic precision at breakneck
tempo, but with the rest of the orchestra. At one point, three or four
simultaneous pulses at different speeds emerged. I've never heard that
particular aspect of the score before. The New York Philharmonic under
Schippers has the best recording of this (Sony MHK62837), but it wasn't
a patch on what the Cleveland did that night.
Ward Stare, a pupil of Zinman's (among others), emphasized the emotional
core of the music, since the orchestra pretty much could handle the
technical aspects. However, that tempo-on-tempo section I haven't heard
from anybody else, so I'm perfectly willing to credit him. On that basis
alone, he's got a career, and the orchestra seemed to enjoy playing for
Zinman took the rest of the concert. The Sibelius Violin Concerto,
one of the composer's most mature statements, comes from 1903-04, when
it bombed. The composer reworked it, and we know the 1905 version today,
although the original has recently undergone revival. We heard the
revision. Like the Brahms concerto, Sibelius's work doesn't give up
its secrets easily. Almost every phrase is so idiosyncratic, it's hard
for both listener and player to figure out the shape. Furthermore, the
architecture -- at least that of the first two movements -- is rather
complex. Added to all that, it bristles with technical difficulties for
the soloist: simultaneous trills and countermelodies, huge, quick leaps
into the violin's ionosphere, triple-stops, and so on -- and it all has
to sound like "just singing."
Sokolov has technique to burn, but he simply is not ready for this
concerto. This became especially obvious in the second movement. He
had very little idea where the music was going, even as he played all
the notes. It was as if he learned his part phonetically. Clearly, the
orchestra and the soloists operated at different depths of understanding.
I began to long for orchestral tuttis. Nevertheless, the Cleveland, one
of the great accompanying orchestras, achieved pianissimos close to the
level of thought. The brass played gloriously, with power minus any
sense of bombast or strain. The third movement, the least complicated,
came off best. Nevertheless, Sokolov wasn't really with Zinman and the
orchestra rhythmically. Apparently, he prefers to pursue his muse,
rather than listen. Still, nothing fell apart.
The Sibelius concerto has made a comeback of sorts, with just about
every soloist you can name on CD. Unfortunately, a lot of kids or
near-kids have tried to turn it into another Mendelssohn. Sibelius needs
a mature musical mind to follow him. Nevertheless, the concerto has
been recorded so often, you can find several top-notch performances,
both historical and modern. The question you have to ask yourself is
whether you really need to hear a particular performance. I've heard
accounts from second-tier forces that just burned into the wood, that
made themselves necessary. The concerto demands that kind of commitment.
Of modern recordings, I like Salerno-Sonnenberg and Thomas on EMI --
just that kind of reading. Sokolov has a beautiful tone and flexible
fingers, but he apparently needs at least five years of seasoning.
The concert ended with a blazing realization of Elgar's "Enigma"
Variations, a composer and a work I don't associate with either Zinman
or Cleveland. The reading had little "Englishness" to it -- an earnestness
and reserve I associate with conductors like Boult, Sargent, and Hickox.
Indeed, Zinman seemed to emphasize the internationalism of the piece.
During the "Ysobel" variation, one savored the resemblances to Richard
Strauss in Elgar's treatment of the orchestra. Certain phrases wouldn't
have been out of place in Don Quixote, yet another set of variations.
Of course the orchestra got the chance to show themselves the virtuosos
they are. Instrumental solos (and none of the principals played that
night) were exquisite: the violist in "Ysobel," the cellist in "B.G.N.,"
the clarinet in "***" intoning Mendelssohn's Meeresstille und gluckliche
Fahrt. The orchestra showed its chops in variations like "W.M.B." and
"G.R.S." (representing G.R.S.'s bulldog, Dan, who inspired several musical
portraits from the composer).
Of course, "Nimrod" counts as one of the make-or-break variations for
any performance. It depicts a conversation between Elgar and his friend
August Jaeger one evening under the stars about Beethoven slow movements.
Indeed, the famous melody seems to be Elgar's take on the slow movement
of the "Pathetique" piano sonata. It's definitely one of Elgar's greatest
tunes, which, of course, he recognized, since he brings it back in the
finale. Zinman and the orchestra started the variation softer than I've
ever heard it, building a long, crescendo that moved inexorably to the
climax, peaked, and softened about five dynamics in three seconds, without
coming across as bizarre or fallen like a souffle. We went from strength
to quiet strength in an amazingly short period.
Zinman took each variation with highly flexible tempi that somehow
emphasized Elgar's orchestral wizardry, and the orchestra kept up without
breaking a sweat. Most evident in the finale, it's the kind of thing
best appreciated live. The finale was tremendous -- strings, brass,
wind, percussion all shining glory. I don't see why this isn't at least
as fine a variation set as the finale to the "Eroica" or the Brahms Haydn
Variations. So call me a Philistine.
A terrific evening, all told. Damn, I wish I lived here.
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