What The Cleveland Orchestra’s Memory and Transformation program lacked in length (the stream clocked in at a mere 37 minutes), it more than made up for in its searing emotional impact, pairing powerful – and widely contrasting – works of Shostakovich and Messiaen. The program also served as a reflection on the intervening year since the pandemic has shuttered concert halls: the darkness of the Shostakovich has rarely felt more relevant, while the brilliance of the Messiaen left audiences with a beacon of light. Though not quite a substitute for a seat in Severance Hall, the Adella platform continues to admirably fill the void with this being one of the series’ more memorable entries.

The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

In his opening remarks, Music Director Franz Welser-Möst noted that Shostakovich wrote his Eighth String Quartet “speaking up from a point of total isolation” – an ethos inherently relatable here in 2021. The composer wrote the quartet while in Dresden, shocked by the city’s destruction – even by 1960 it was still a shell of its former self – and in many ways, this is his most inwardly personal work, filled with self-quotations and his “DSCH” musical signature. TCO presented the work in its expansion for string orchestra by conductor Rudolf Barshai (done in consultation with the composer), styled as the Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op.110a.

The Cleveland strings offered a darkly resonant tone in the opening Largo, adroitly navigating the wandering counterpoint, and the work’s uncompromising bleakness was evidenced in no uncertain terms. Certainly no respite was to be had in the following Allegro molto, a study in blistering intensity. The central movement amounts to a waltz in all but name, though any lyricism was largely overshadowed by the composer’s propensity for caustic ironies. The first of the two concluding Largo movements was highlighted by some fine solo passages: concertmaster Peter Otto, exuding an almost monastic severity; and cellist Richard Weiss, far into the upper range of his instrument. Interjections from the rest of the orchestra were suitably anxiety-inducing, and the work drew to a close in doleful rumination

A trio of triangles...
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’au-delà (Illuminations from the Beyond) is his final completed work, first performed in 1992 for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. Scored for 128 players, it’s a massive conception, unfolding over no less than eleven movements. The final movement, Le Christ, lumière du Paradis (Christ, Light of Paradise), however, is distilled to just the strings – and a trinity of triangles – and served as a touching pendant to the Shostakovich. I do hope in a future season we can hear the Clevelanders in a complete performance of the work; this is an orchestra that can work wonders with Messiaen, as documented by two recordings made with Pierre Boulez in the 1990s. The shimmering beauty of the luminous strings resounded in Messiaen’s vision of heaven, an image all the more delightful with the triangles’ omnipresent layer of angelic tinsel.

This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream

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