by Daniel Hathaway
Just back from its triumphant European tour, The Cleveland Orchestra joined two old friends — guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and pianist Emanuel Ax — for resplendent performances of Elgar and Beethoven at Severance Hall on Sunday afternoon, November 5.
The centerpiece was Ax’s exemplary take on Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. Having completely mastered the technical demands of his solo part, Ax was free to bump his role a step higher and point up details that often lie hidden and undiscovered. Those were often subtle: lingering on the top note of a phrase for a nanosecond, or adding just an extra touch of wit to the repartée between soloist and orchestra.
Ashkenazy set the first movement up with a true pianissimo and a leisurely, spacious tempo that gave Ax plenty of room to express himself. The pianist’s phrasing and articulation were pristine. His pacing of the cadenzas (Beethoven’s own) made them sound newly invented, and their transitions back to orchestral tuttis surprising.
Clarinetist Daniel McKelway’s ravishing solo near the end of the slow movement inspired spontaneous applause and a little nod from Ashkenazy before Ax dashed off the opening figure of the Rondo with elegant precision. For the rest of the movement, communication between soloist, conductor, and orchestra was mesmerizing. When he wasn’t playing, Ax turned toward his colleagues and bobbed his head on the offbeats. And he added a nice touch to the final cadence — punching up the last two chords with bass notes that aren’t in the score, rather than sitting passively by while the Orchestra finished the piece.
Ax responded to the ardent applause with an expressive performance of Schubert’s Der Müller und der Bach, arranged by Liszt.
Two works by English Edwardian composer Edward Elgar made agreeable companions to the Beethoven. With a jaunty rhythmic figure in the violas, the Serenade in e began Sunday’s program with what might have been an invitation to a cheerful ramble in the Cotswolds — and a return home, for its opening gestures make another appearance in the third movement. Ashkenazy and the Orchestra’s strings gave those outer movements an ebullient performance, and brought out Elgar’s elegiac side in the expressive Larghetto.
Sunday’s program ended in an explosion of orchestral color with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. What fun it would have been to be one of the composer’s friends and find your personality captured in these thumbnail sketches. The sonorous opening leads to fourteen witty, brilliant, sometimes bittersweet musical portraits, including one identified only as *** (an enigma within an enigma).
High points include Elgar’s caricatures of a tricycle-riding Oxford Don, a tall, female viola player, an architect who tried in vain to play the piano, an editor for the composer’s publisher who inspired the famous “Nimrod” movement, an organist’s bulldog who falls into a river, and a mysterious woman who embarks on a sea voyage. The final variation, a self-portrait, turns into a grand, British march that epitomizes the self confidence of the Victorian era.
Canny pacing from Ashkenazy and playing of uncommon brilliance and transparency from The Cleveland Orchestra and its many soloists made this a performance to cherish.
Ashkenazy photo by Keith Saunders.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 9, 2017.
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