For its penultimate concerts of the Severance Hall season, The Cleveland Orchestra this week presented an unlikely, but intellectually stimulating and musically satisfying program. Two Haydn symphonies were bookends for György Ligeti's Piano Concerto, and the world première of a Cleveland Orchestra commission, Topos, by Anthony Cheung, the current Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow of The Cleveland Orchestra.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard © Marco Borggreve | DG
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Marco Borggreve | DG

Pierre-Laurent Aimard has been a regular guest soloist with TCO since 1996 in repertoire as varied as Mozart, Messiaen, Ravel and Boulez. He is also closely associated with Ligeti's piano music, including a previous TCO performance of the Piano Concerto in 2000 conducted by Boulez. The concerto's five movements are intricate, from the Bartók-like asymmetrical rhythms of the first movement, the mystery of the second movement with its growling bass drone and slide whistle, to the coda of the last movement with its nod to Messiaen in the brilliant piano and xylophone duet that closes the concerto. The music occasionally seems mathematical in its construction, as in the austere third movement. Despite these many complexities, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Franz Welser-Möst made the even the most outwardly chaotic-sounding passages seem transparently detailed. It is hard to imagine a more authoritative performance than this collaboration among soloist, conductor, and orchestra.

Some of the eight previous Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellows include Matthias Pintscher, Julian Anderson, Jörg Widmann and Ryan Wigglesworth. Each has been introduced to Severance Hall audience through performance of one or more of their existing works, and culminates in the premiere of a new work for The Cleveland Orchestra. Anthony Cheung (b.1982) is on the music faculty of the University of Chicago. His Lyra was heard last season, and his Topos received its first performance on this concert. Topos is based on the idea that certain musical gestures can evoke representational ideas, even when heard out of their normal context. The composer notes that horn calls "were originally indicative of hunting ... but re-emerged in the 19th century as symbols of nostalgia and even leave-taking or farewell." Each of the four movements of Topos uses a different musical symbol: shadowy "night music" made famous by Bartók; Sturm und Drang of early Romantic literature, used in Topos as allusions to water, the sea, and storm music; "love music" in rhapsodic variations; and hunting music for the last movement. Cheung has borrowed liberally from existing music throughout Topos. The E flat opening music of Wagner's Das Rheingold appears in the second movement; Berg's Lyric Suite and the orchestrational style of Lulu appear fleetingly in the movement about love; and, most prominently, passages from Beethoven symphonies pile on each other in the last movement. Quotations from pre-existing materials are, of course, not new, but Cheung's allusions are often sly and disguised within his own music, which itself evokes and extends the topics he symbolizes. The allusions seem almost as Pavlovian triggers, prompting the listener to hear other signals of the "topos" embedded in Cheung's original music. The work requires a vast orchestra, used with great skill. One hearing was not enough to absorb it all, but this was a convincing performance.

Joseph Haydn's Symphony no. 39 and Symphony no. 96 ("The Miracle") opened and closed the concert. The two symphonies showed the expansion of Haydn's style and the development of symphonic form in the 25 years separating their composition. The Sturm und Drang of no. 39 also set up perfectly the storminess of the second movement of Cheung's Topos. "The Miracle" was indeed a miracle of classical elegance. There were beautifully shaped wind solos, particularly oboist Frank Rosenwein's solo in the trio of the third movement, which was elaborately ornamented on its repeat. The fourth movement was simply a joyful pleasure.