Thrilling Brahms Brings Audience — and Maestro — to Their Feet at Severance Hall

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PHOTO BY STEVE RISKIND
  • Photo by Steve Riskind

The only thing more predictable than a Mozart rondo is a standing ovation at Severance Hall.

The enthusiastic ovation following Richard Goode’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K. 456 was far from trivial, though. The orchestra got off to a bumpy start on Thursday night as strings and woodwinds couldn’t quite agree on a tempo, but then Goode came in with the right tempo and it was perfection from then on.

Right away there was plenty of on-stage “critic bait,” from Goode’s decision to use a score to conductor Mikko Franck leading the orchestra while sitting down. (Franck replaced Christoph von Dohnányi, who the orchestra inexplicably keeps engaging in spite of his persistent cancellations due to failing health.) None of that has anything to do with the music, but it did fuel some inane parlor analysis overheard at intermission.

Goode, who’s best known as a supreme interpreter of Beethoven, projected the Mozart with total clarity in spite of an oddly large string section. Typically a conductor would consider paring down the strings to emulate the more modest proportions of an 18th-century orchestra. While the orchestra was more present than one might hear on a perfectly balanced recording, the musicians came together as perfect accompanists.



Franck led the orchestra with quiet dignity, affection and assurance. The second movement’s ominous repeated-note “knocking” motif was expressively shaped and blossomed with each appearance. The way Goode tapered off his half cadences rather than leaning into them added subtle but effective drama. The second movement’s character shift from minor to major was somewhat incomplete all around; the latter section sounded overly laden. Principal flutist Joshua Smith’s solos in the second movement were incredibly lovely aside from some anticlimactic breaths when sustained notes begged to be carried through.

Goode’s exciting inflections and effortlessly tossed-off arpeggios turned Mozart’s boilerplate rondo into a rousing finish.

A work by former Daniel R. Lewis Fellow Julian Anderson opened the concert. The British composer’s “Incantesimi,” which premiered on this side of the pond almost a year ago, was a dramatic aesthetic shift since Anderson’s work was last heard in Cleveland. Known for taking textural and tonal saturation to almost unimaginable excess, Anderson instead delivers an accessible, delicate and moving piece that’s more thematically cohesive, at least on the surface, than anything else of his I’ve heard. It didn’t quite work as a concert opener, though. Too bad the geriatric management treats new music like a fiber pill to be gotten over with before the meal.

Anderson stands out among living composers as a thoughtful and truly skilled orchestrator. The stage looked atypically bare; there was no cartoonish battery of percussion. Robert Walters’ beautifully elegiac English horn solos bound the piece together like a black silk ribbon. Unfortunately, Walters’ final declaration as the piece came to an abrupt end was partially covered by offstage brass. I’m not sure whether to blame the musicians or the composer, because every chance to hear the English horn is precious.

The evening’s post-intermission masterwork was Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, a piece perfectly suited to the orchestra’s embracing and warm sound. The brass playing was some of the most tasteful I’ve ever heard in a Brahms symphony. (Listen to the Chicago Symphony’s recording of the complete symphonies with Daniel Barenboim to hear the opposite extreme.)

The basses and contrabassoon took full advantage of their moments in the spotlight, and so did the timpani acting as the orchestra’s rich heartbeat. The smart imitative passages among the oboe, clarinet and horn in the first movement showed the musicians’ remarkable ability to individually play off each other while matching style and articulation. The whole orchestra was perfectly synced and made simple work of Brahms’ signature offbeats and playful rhythms.

Principal oboist Frank Rosenwein’s solos were the highlights of the hymn-like second movement. Rosenwein consistently captures the elusive beauty of the oboe’s upper register, and this performance was no exception. Concertmaster William Preucil was disappointingly under pitch during his and Rosenwein’s unison duet, and his darker color was poorly matched to the oboe’s pure tone.

Afendi Yusuf played the third movement’s meandering clarinet solo with simplicity and innocent grace.

The final movement’s unremarkable melody, when combined with Brahms’ genius for development and the Cleveland musicians’ amazing skill, became absolutely transporting. The horn solos were emotionally flat but technically competent. Brahms’ capricious shifts between flurries of scales and lush effusion were intoxicating as they built to a fugue-like fever pitch.

There was one unexpected person standing at the end of the symphony: the maestro himself. After being confined to a chair for the duration of the program, Franck suddenly rose to his feet and cheered the orchestra on to deliver the exultant final chords

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