The Valentine’s weekend saw The Cleveland Orchestra turn to what amounted to a hearty dose of comfort food on a wintry night: well-known pearls of the classical repertoire, and a fitting platform for the local debut of conductor Philippe Herreweghe. Opening the Beethovenian first half was the Egmont Overture, perhaps the composer’s most imposing single-movement essay. Matters were tautly focused, emanating a wound-up nervous energy, yet the brash brass were often glaringly in the foreground – a balance issue that would resurface in the exultant major key coda. Lyrical interjections passed around the principal winds offered both highlights and respite.

Isabelle Faust © Felix Broede
Isabelle Faust
© Felix Broede

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major followed, putting the considerable talents of Isabelle Faust in the spotlight. A choir of woodwinds underpinned by the timpani opened the spacious first movement, with the strings entering crisp and dry, almost aphoristic in their directness, but in due course blossoming into a more lyrical persuasion. Faust boasted a sweetly singing tone, rallying vigor as needed for the militaristic episodes, and her intuitive command of the work kept Herreweghe’s sometimes fitful accompaniment in check. Beethoven would later make a transcription of this concerto for piano, an edition which includes a written-out cadenza which Faust performed in her arrangement for violin. Heightening one’s interest in its novelty, this cadenza even featured some delightful interplay with the timpani.

The songful, crepuscular beauty of the Larghetto saw Faust in full control of her instrument’s upper register at its most lyrical potential, and the orchestra responded in kind – especially the mellow clarinet of Afendi Yusuf. A particularly striking moment pitted Faust against a pizzicato backdrop, barely hanging on to the limits of audibility. The jaunty Rondo finale was approached via a sudden and seamless transition, closing the work in the highest of spirits. An encore showed a totally different side of Faust in her penchant for contemporary repertoire: the “Fantasy” from George Rochberg’s massive Caprice Variations, replete with a panoply of timbres hardly recognizable as a violin.

The Belgian conductor made an immeasurably stronger showing in the second half, devoted to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, almost sounding as if a different persona had taken the podium. A brisk tempo wasted no time getting to the meat of the opening Allegro vivace: Herreweghe’s batonless conducting communicated with intricate nuance, from material of dancing lightness to the boldly majestic, amply befitting of the work’s epithet. Surely Mozart’s greatest symphonic slow movement, the Andante cantabile featured top-drawer playing from the woodwinds and gentle dips in the strings that were cantabile indeed. The fleet Menuetto was punctuated by a strict triple meter, yet given with enough flexibility so as to not sound stilted. Perhaps the culmination of the classical symphony in its grand design wherein fugue and sonata form are miraculously blended, the finale concluded the evening in a vigorous display of crystalline counterpoint.

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