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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Concert Review: Agon and Ecstasy

Stravinsky meets Tchaikovsky at Severance Hall.
Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall.
Photo by Roger Mastroianni © 2010 The Cleveland Orchestra.
The Cleveland Orchestra's Saturday evening subscription concert explored the divide between reason and passion. Two cerebral pieces by  Igor Stravinsky were followed by Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. Music Director Franz Welser-Möst made this program a cogent argument for pairing these very different Russian composers.

The program opened with Stravinsky's Concerto in D, written solely for strings.  This is a concerto in the baroque style, with entire sections offering commentary instead of pitting a soloist against the whole orchestra. It is in the composer's neo-classical  style. Stravinsky creates dialogue between the five sub-sections of the strings. Each principal  player held forth independently, creating a conversation among the strings that made for fascinating listening. Mr. Welser-Möst led the work in his customary, efficient manner.

The Concerto was followed by Agon, the thorniest of Stravinsky's ballet scores. This is an example of Stravinsky's serial style, where music is built from predetermined tone-rows instead of the typical scale. However, Agon is melodic, and its sardonic wit is unmistakeable Stravinsky. The twelve-part work uses the entire orchestra as its palette, calling for solo parts from all four sections and emphasizing some unusual instruments.

Mr. Welser-Möst brought maximum clarity to this work, which had not been heard at Severance Hall in nearly four decades. The orchestra responded brilliantly, as the knotty musical lines untangled themselves and the work coalesced. The brass, asked to make difficult contributions in this work, responded admirably, as did the superb woodwind section.

The Tchaikovsky Fourth finds the composer setting aside naturalism and nationalism for an unyielding exploration of his own psyche. Mr. Welser-Möst tackled the opening movement head-on, opting for a bold, aggressive approach in this famous movement. The blast of brass that opens the work became a strident expression of rage at this fast speed, clashing with the folk-like second theme.

The second movement features a sad oboe theme against the strings that builds to a quiet chorale in the brass. Mr. Welser-Möst slowed the tempo accordingly for this more contemplative music, which featured fine playing from the principal oboe and the English horn. Pizzicato strings led off the Scherzo as the grim mood started to lift in anticipation of the finale.

The last movement brings the struggle to a head, as the violent brass theme from the first movement attempted a comeback. This was ultimately rejected in favor of a more optimistic rising theme, that brought the symphony to a flowing finish. Again, fast tempos were taken, emphasizing the war inside Tchaikovsky's head, one ultimately won by the forces of light.

The enthusiastic reception of this bold Fourth led to a magnificent encore: the slow Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger. Reflective playing from the cellos gave way to a hushed choir of horns, creating tones that might have been created on Severance Hall's pipe organ. The Wagner piece ended with a simple, added cadence. This was either a teaser for a future Cleveland Meistersinger, or a measure to prevent playing the full two-hour act.

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