The Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst shine on Beethoven and Schnittke, with Bronfman mastering the keyboard

Music Director Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra strings at their Severance Hall home. © Roger Mastroianni

For their second episode of In Focus online concert series, the Cleveland Orchestra and Music Director Franz Welser-Möst were joined by pianist Yefim Bronfman, performing Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979). 

Among the postwar avant-garde, Schnittke was an interesting original. A Soviet composer with German family roots, Schnittke had a troublesome relationship with the authorities, resulting in several clashes with the Composer’s Union throughout his career, up until his emigration to West Germany in 1990.

In the latter half of the sixties, Schnittke began to apply serial and other modernist principles into his music, yielding to baffled responses from the authorities. Yet, his artistry prevailed, and in the course of the seventies, the western-influenced tendencies in Soviet music became gradually more tolerated. 

However, yet another stylistic clash occurred, when Schnittke began to distance himself from the hardcore modernism, in favor of more elaborate and eclectic musical language. Like his compatriot Arvo Pärt, Schnittke thus became double rejected, first for embracing the avant-garde then for rejecting the avant-garde. 

Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra is one of his most extraordinary works. Written in one movement and lasting circa 25 minutes, the Concerto shuns away from the traditional three-movement scheme, while assuming a sectional approach, a musical counterpart of free association.   

The Concerto opens with the soloist alone, musing on a simple, contemplative figure. After a while, the solo line gains complexity, as the left-hand chords grow ever more dense, resulting in borderline clusters. The strings join, and the musical fabric enter into an ebb and flow between diatonic clarity and chromatic blur. 

In similar vein, the rhythms and tempo relationships are subjected to abrupt changes, yielding to a fascinating contrapuntal formations. At moments, the Concerto adopts brilliant, quasi-baroque hue, only to plunge into the most twentieth century idioms imaginable. 

One of the highlights of the Concerto is a jazz-tinged duet between the piano and a solo double bass, seemingly appearing from nowhere, yet feeling completely natural. As a whole, the Concerto resembles a journey either in time or in the alleles and byways of a city, with snippets of different musics and everyday sounds flooding from all sides. 

There is a cadenza too, albeit not the kind of virtuoso tour-de-force showpiece, but rather a reflective passage for the soloist, with musical ideas processed apart from the orchestra. 

On the final pages, the Concerto slows down and begins to fade into the distance, with the soloist returning to the gestures of the opening, accompanied by slow, pianissimo pedal notes from the strings. 

A tremendously exciting performance by Bronfman and the orchestra, with Welser-Möst, the Schnittke Concerto comes off as a gripping tableau, awash with colour and vivid sonic imagery. 

For Bronfman, this is his first foray into the realm of the Schnittke Concerto, a new repertoire entry the formidable pianist has learned during the lockdown months. As ever, his performance is full of nuance and wit, embedded in an astounding range of expressivity. 

With Welser-Möst on the podium, the Cleveland string players provide a masterful take on the orchestral part. Be it those glimmering, quasi-baroque passages or the distorted, surreal sections, the string textures shine out in their exquisite sonorities. Clad in ever-articulate rhythms, wondrously interwoven with the solo part, the performance is an absolutely wonderful one.

The multi-dimensional sound-world of the Schnittke Concerto enables many programming choices in terms of couplings. The orchestra and Welser-Möst provide an interesting choice, in the guise of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 74 (1809), in a version for full symphonic strings.

Nicknamed ”Harp” after arpeggios within the pizzicato textures of the opening movement, the four-movement quartet combines a sonata-allegro, with introduction, an adagio ma non troppo,a scherzo with two trios and a variation-finale into a compelling entity, filled with intriguing textures. 

Perhaps in a manner similar to Schnittke, Beethoven too combines seemingly unrelated musical ingredients in the most organic way, resulting in a series of surprises and revelations. In addition, both the Quartet and the Concerto display staggering contrasts, yielding to bursts of terrific sonic energy. 

Franz Welser Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra recording the In focus series at the Severance Hall. © Roger Mastroianni

Handed over to full strings, the massed textures are faithful to the quartet original, with the lower registers of the cello part doubled by orchestral basses. Given the unique translucence of the Cleveland Orchestra strings, the performance maintains the clarity of chamber music, while gaining extra colour and depth from its large ensemble setting.

Welser-Möst’s tempi are brisk, yet never hurried, and the sonic architecture is ever well-conceived, to an invigorating effect. 

While purists may argue against the idea of orchestral chamber music, an inspired symphonic performance, carries interesting potential. This Cleveland performance of the ”Harp” Quartet, alongside their 2017 take on the Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 (1825), included in the orchestra’s three-disc album A New Century, are both nothing short of revelatory.

With top-class music-making, the Cleveland Orchestra’s Beethoven Quartet series with Welser-Möst provides insight to those fascinating links between the composer’s quartets and symphonies, connections often less discernable with the originals. 

A rewarding programme, the second entry in the In Focus series is yet another case in point of the unique partnership between the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst. With the next episode out on November 12, the series is to continue with performances of Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings (1939)and Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D (1779-1785), with Emanuel Ax as soloist.    

The Cleveland Orchestra

Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Yefim Bronfman, piano

Alfred Schnittke: Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979)

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 74 ”Harp” (1809, version for string orchestra)

Severance Hall, Cleveland

First released on Thursday 29 October 2020 on Adella.live 

© Jari Kallio

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