Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Blossom Music Center
July 6

A refined approach to passionate music.

The thunder came early in the orchestra’s Saturday night concert – literally. A brief but ferocious thunderstorm roared through Blossom during the opening piece, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (Op. 133), unleashing wind-whipped sheets of rain and booming thunderclaps. The apocalyptic atmospherics would have been a better fit with the second piece on the program, Liszt’s portentous Totentanz (Dance of Death).

Or perhaps not. The Grosse Fuge was deemed incomprehensible (and nearly unplayable) when it premiered in 1826, and is still considered a radical work today. Departing from the conventions of the string quartet, Beethoven composed a furious, deeply introspective movement that no less an authority than Igor Stravinsky declared “will be contemporary forever.” It has survived as a standalone piece that taxes players’ abilities and listeners’ stamina.

But there was little of that in the orchestra’s performance, which was nuanced, well-informed and altogether pleasant. Conductor Franz Welser-Möst managed to build some drama in the final minutes, but otherwise it was a spirited romp. This may be a function of transposing the piece from a string quartet to an orchestral work; there is no way dozens of strings, especially the golden Cleveland Orchestra violins, are going to have a jagged edge. Mother Nature had to step in to provide that.

Dancing with Mr. D.
Liszt’s Totentanz brought the return of French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who plays with an authority and flair well-suited for the piece. A tempestuous set of variations on the 13th-century Dies Irae hymn (which also survives in the Catholic funeral Mass), Totentanz is noted for its percussive use of the piano, an innovation when Liszt composed the work in the 1850s.

Thibaudet attacked the piece like a percussionist, hammering out the opening four-note theme like a blacksmith on an anvil, then ripping into blazing cadenzas. Anyone can bang, but what most impressed about Thibaudet was his virtuosity – his technical command, facile phrasing, fluid segues to lyrical passages and superb rendering of light and dark tones. Somehow he made it all sound spontaneous, as if the sound were erupting from the keyboard. And the orchestra amped up a fireworks finish that matched the electricity in the sky.

Welser-Möst brings an air of refinement to whatever he touches, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) was no exception. He opened the work in grand, glorious terms, with powerful internal dynamics and bright splashes of color. As it developed, the conductor’s usual strengths came to the fore – crystal clarity, exceptional balance and careful attention to fine details, in particular a light touch in the violins that was lustrous against the horns and woodwinds.

If the tempo dragged a bit in the second movement, it picked up again in the third, which was still tightly controlled as it built to majestic proportions. The final movement captured the heroic element of the work, though not quite in the ringing, full-bodied dimensions one might wish for in Beethoven. But whatever one’s tastes, hearing this expansive, inspirational symphony in the open air of a summer night is a divine experience.

Even if you have to brave the wrath of the heavens to do it.

For more on Jean-Yves Thibaudet: http://www.jeanyvesthibaudet.com

To hear Thibaudet play Totentanz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnboa80gIQI

Orchestra photo by Roger Mastroianni

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