Monday, February 17, 2014


Severance Hall
February 13

Surprisingly uneven work in a disappointing debut.

Some weeks, the hometown band is interesting for what it can do under the direction of a visiting conductor. Other times, it’s impressive for what it can accomplish despite a new hand at the helm. German conductor Marc Albrecht’s Thursday night debut with the Cleveland Orchestra was, unfortunately, an example of the latter. Which was surprising, given his success with European orchestras and affinity for the 20th-century repertoire.

Currently chief conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Netherlands Opera, Albrecht, 49, made his reputation in the orchestra pits at the Hamburg State Opera, Staatstheater Darmstadt and Deutsche Oper Berlin. His style is well-suited to the stage, with grand, dramatic gestures and vivid colors in the music. Noted in particular for his handling of Wagner and Strauss, he would seem a perfect fit for a program of two familiar Mahler works and the orchestral version of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor (Op. 25).

But his performance was uneven, veering from carefully crafted detail work to broad strokes so loose that there were technical miscues, with the players making their own internal adjustments. And in what should have been Albrecht’s strength – accompanying mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer – the singer and conductor seemed to be out of synch.

The evening opened with Mahler’s Blumine, the “leftover” movement from the composer’s first symphony. Albrecht’s rendering was straightforward and lacked clarity, sounding like a solid, uninspired wall of sound. Especially taken out of its original symphonic context, the Blumine is not very expressive and needs some sharpening and verve. But an apparent timing misstep in the opening trumpet cantilena seemed to throw the piece off slightly, and it never developed any texture or depth.

Albrecht got off to a better start with Songs of a Wayfarer, providing bright, buoyant accompaniment for Cooke. There was a lot more detail in the sound, which sparkled at times. But then it would fly open and range widely before coming back to a tight focus. The inconsistent approach appeared uncomfortable for the musicians, who sounded comparatively stiff in their playing.
Short but sweet.

It may also have affected Cooke, who was not always on top of her breathing. That’s unusual – typically, she has a great feel for the work of not only Mahler, but late 20th-century composers like John Adams and Philip Glass. Her expertise was clear in a rich lower register for the first two songs, a powerful dramatic flair in “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” and the high, delicate melodic lines of “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz.” Cooke’s brief but engaging turn drew enthusiastic applause from the audience, as well as the orchestra members.

The Brahms quartet sounds nothing like a chamber work in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 transcription, which in performance looks like an exercise in using every single instrument in a large orchestra. Indeed, when asked why he undertook the task, Schoenberg said, “It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything.”

That much Albrecht managed to achieve. Individual instruments and sections came to the fore, with the conductor finally taking advantage of the orchestra’s silken strings, vibrant horns and woodwinds, and precision percussion. All four movements brimmed with color and drama, building to a fast-paced finish of aural fireworks. The energy was infectious and the sprawling dimensions of the work were fascinating.

Still, it seemed hollow, all surface gloss and dazzle without a tight central core. And the sound was once again uneven, powerful in the dramatic swells that Albrecht favors but anemic in the more thoughtful passages, particularly in the second movement. And the dark tones of the third movement just never arrived. Technically the piece suffered as well, with rough edges instead of clean, sharp lines in the final movement, and passages throughout where different sections of the orchestra seemed to be bumping into each other instead of meshing. In the whirlwind finish, the sound was nearly tripping over itself.

None of which seemed to bother the Severance audience, which responded with its usual fervor. For that, the orchestra players deserve even more credit than usual.

For more on Marc Albrecht:

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