by Daniel Hathaway
Music director Franz Welser-Möst returned to the Severance Hall podium on May 12 to lead the first of three end-of-season programs. The Thursday evening performance featured violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann in an exceptional performance of Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2.
The concert represented something of a homecoming for the concerto. The piece received its U.S. premiere in Severance Hall in January of 1943 by then-concertmaster Tossy Spivakovsky and the Orchestra, led by Artur Rodzinski. To be a musically-informed fly on the wall on that occasion would have been fun, but it’s difficult to imagine an interpretation as brilliant and assured as Zimmermann’s.
The concerto sneaks up on you. It begins engagingly with harp and pizzicato strings and a warm, colorful solo from the violin. Then Bartók flings open his toolbox of special effects, distributing them equally between soloist and orchestra: violin slides, razzing brass, frenzies of fiddling joined by snare drum, lyrical interludes, whooping orchestral outbursts, a wild cadenza. The composer is full of ideas. No sooner does he take one up than he tosses it over his shoulder in favor of the next burst of inspiration.
The second movement, a set of six variations on a poignant theme, teems with its own fresh ideas and clever combinations between soloist and orchestra. The finale, a heavy-footed but dancy rondo, alternates between striking gestures building to climaxes and a light-hearted, frolicking solo tune.
Zimmermann responded chameleon-like to all of Bartók’s changes of mood, texture, and color, playing with easy virtuosity and perfect intonation. Welser-Möst and the Orchestra gave the soloist superb support and responded fluently to every scintillating conversation he initiated.
The audience called conductor and soloist back several times, winning an extra selection from the violinist. Nothing could have been more different than the Allegro from J.S. Bach’s second violin sonata, but Zimmermann — taking both repeats — gave it a rhythmically precise, highly nuanced performance.
The evening began with a rarity: Franz Liszt’s tone poem Orpheus, a score that The Cleveland Orchestra hadn’t dusted off since first playing it in 1928. A gentle, lyrical evocation of the legendary musician who made mountaintops bow their heads when he sang, this tone poem finds Liszt at his most lyrical. Welser-Möst moved the brief piece along nicely, but broadened the pace for warm climaxes. Wind players seamlessly passed off melodic lines to each other, and the two harpists — representing the poet’s lyre — tinkled agreeably at the ends of phrases.
At the end came Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, a work that preceded the composer’s work on the second violin concerto. Divided into two choirs surrounding the piano and celesta, the strings spin out a long, exotic, quasi-fugal texture, eventually joined by the percussion in a gradual crescendo that leads to intense unison dialogues.
The second movement, initiated by a more active, craggy theme, devolves into wild syncopations. The piano proposes a new idea, a repeated-note motive soon surrounded by swirling strings.
High repeated notes on the xylophone introduce the third movement, exotified by timpani glissandos, string slides, clouds of celesta notes — and a return to the original material.
The piece ends with a festive, peasant-like string dance led by piano and timpani, a dialogue between the two string choirs, and a richly-textured tutti, before a final cello solo.
Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra captured both the folkloric ruggedness and the formal refinement of this enthralling piece. If you missed it this time — or just want to hear it again — circle your calendars for July 8, when it will be repeated on the Summers@Severance series along with Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 17, 2016.
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