There was no disagreement from the audience, which packed the hall nearly full. And even this critic, not a fan of the Romantic repertoire, found plenty to chew on in the way Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden and Canadian pianist Louis Lortie handled the pieces.
Lortie had total command of the Chopin concerto from the opening bars, displaying virtuoso playing skills while balancing the technical and emotional demands of the piece. It’s an early work (1829-30), not as florid as many of Chopin’s later compositions, though already well into the dazzling runs that left Chopin’s audiences breathless when he performed them. Lortie is a gifted player who seems to flow through those passages effortlessly, with a fast-paced, fluid style that gives up nothing in precision.
Better-known for his work with Chopin’s études, Lortie is comfortable enough with the composer's work to employ a lot of his own phrasing, racing playfully through complicated cascades — particularly in the third movement of this piece — and then pausing thoughtfully to find the subtleties in the softer moments. It’s a masterful if slightly cooler treatment of Chopin than one typically hears, refreshing in its approach and impressive in its intellectual depth.
Lortie’s performance was also a good match for the orchestra, which van Zweden dialed down to a lush background, matching the pianist’s restraint with the clean, cerebral sound typical of northern Europe. A Polish member of the audience who is himself a conductor thought that the final movement sounded more like a waltz than a mazurka, which is not uncommon. Otherwise, the performance was an admirable blend of skill and sensitivity, giving the Romantic elements their due while maintaining a polished, self-assured style.
Van Zweden seemed to slog his way through the first movement of the Rachmaninoff symphony, getting off to a turgid start that never quite recovered in the strings, though his rendering of light and dark tones included some marvelous colors in the woodwinds. The second movement began briskly and quickly blossomed into a much fuller and sharper sound, with the tempo adding some excitement and the strings taking on their trademark golden glow.
The final two movements were totally given over to the Romantic currents that course through the symphony, coming to the fore particularly in the third movement, with its prominent theme that inevitably reminds everyone in northern Ohio of pop star Eric Carmen, who turned it into the 1976 hit “Never Going to Fall in Love Again.” It seems almost sacrilegious to mention that in the course of a classical music review, but there it is — we are all captives of our musical past.
Fortunately, Van Zweden has no such mental blocks, and he thoroughly explored not just the Romantic aspects of the symphony, but every element in its many variations and references — a bit of Beethoven here, a touch of Dvorák there, the quick pivots in the final movement as it builds momentum and emotion. Van Zweden steered it all to a bright, flashy finish that brought the audience to its feet. Standing ovations are de rigueur with Cleveland audiences, and this concert had the added boost of a well-known and well-loved work. Still, the energy and accolades were all the conductor's own.
The program aside, pairing van Zweden with Lortie made for a very satisfying evening. The two men share stylistic similarities, eschewing the obvious emotional clichés for a more nuanced approach that ultimately gives the music greater range and impact. For Thanksgiving dessert, it was sweet. But hearing van Zweden and Lortie perform together would be a feast any time of year.