Saturday evening’s Cleveland Orchestra program at Blossom Music Center was comprised of two major works that arguably bookend the Romantic era, one a well-known quantity, the other a major rediscovery: Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto, and Zemlinsky’s symphonic fantasy Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”). At the podium was Andrey Boreyko, a conductor who has championed the less-familiar repertoire. Also worth highlighting were the video screens placed on either side of the pavilion, a recent addition which displays close-ups of the musicians in real time – a very effective way to achieve a degree of intimacy in a venue that can accommodate nearly 20,000.

Andrey Boreyko
© Richard de Stoutz

Pianist Francesco Piemontesi was protagonist in the Beethoven, serving the opening flourish with both ebullience and gravitas. The orchestral tutti was energetic and well-balanced – even in the brassier parts – with Boreyko crafting a canvas of crisp strings and bubbling winds. Piemontesi’s reentry balanced lyricism with panache, and he sailed through the movement’s octaves, trills, rapid runs and other technical hurdles with thorough command and conviction, pointing towards a coda grand and victorious. A serene choir of strings opened the slow movement, and the piano’s delicate cantilena drew a sonic beauty that was utterly entrancing, seamlessly leading to the finale, disparate as it may have been wherein matters leapt from the keyboard with joy and abandon. As an encore, the pianist offered Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat major: a beautifully voiced chordal section, ranging from the gentle to the imposing, was contrasted with filigree limpid and lyrical.

Both Schoenberg and Zemlinsky were in the audience when Richard Strauss introduced a pair of his groundbreaking tone poems to Viennese audiences in 1901, and both were resolved to respond with works of their own of equal ambition. For Schoenberg this yielded Pelleas und Melisande (which TCO performed last season), and Zemlinsky produced Die Seejungfrau, based on the tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Despite generally favorable reviews, Zemlinsky ultimately withdrew Die Seejungfrau, long thought to be lost until the manuscript resurfaced in the 1980s. It was in fact The Cleveland Orchestra that gave the belated US premiere under Christoph von Dohnányi in February 1987. It has only appeared on a TCO program once since then, so gratitude is due to Boreyko and the orchestra for giving the work its due once again – especially during the summer season when programming choices tend to run conservative.

Despite its literary inspiration, Zemlinsky took a rather different approach than the cinematically-detailed scores of Strauss: while he offers a few clues as to the narrative through the three movements, the music generally serves to suggest a psychological state rather than to capture a specific plot point. There’s also an analogue to Zemlinsky’s biography that has been suggested: at its core the fairy tale deals with an unattainable love living under the sea, and Zemlinsky composed the work in the wake of Mahler’s marriage to Alma, whom he had previously courted unsuccessfully.

Low strings and harp opened the piece with a mystical and submerged atmosphere, while flutters in the winds brought life to the murky depths. I was struck by some particularly fine passages in the bass clarinet, as well as a recurring theme from concertmaster Peter Otto, lushly filled with the titular mermaid’s yearning. The music proceeded as a colorful, coruscating tapestry brimming with the ardor of Strauss, Mahler, and those who fervently carried the Wagnerian mantle into the 20th century, but not without evidence of Zemlinsky’s individual voice. The yearning motif surfaced extensively in the central movement, and powerful brass chorales pointed towards impassioned strings. Ultimately, the work ended in quietude, a somber realm eventually giving way to an ethereal peacefulness. For those eager to hear more Zemlinsky from this orchestra – myself emphatically included – a performance of the Sinfonietta is slated for next spring.