This week’s Cleveland Orchestra concert seemed, on paper, to be quite standard: an unknown short symphony by a neglected Classical era composer, plus two standard repertoire works by Mendelssohn and Mozart, with superb violinist Isabelle Faust as soloist. But the concert, led by Canadian guest conductor Bernard Labadie, turned out to be anything but routine. Henri-Joseph Rigel’s Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 12/4 proved to be charming, and Isabelle Faust brought a virtuosic and thought-provoking performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550 was beautifully shaped.

Isabelle Faust © Felix Broede
Isabelle Faust
© Felix Broede

German composer Henri-Joseph Rigel (1741-1799) was roughly Mozart’s contemporary, but he made Paris his home base from 1767 until his death. His works (mostly now lost) were published by illustrious houses such at Breitkopf, but his fame rested on his symphonies. The symphony heard here was in three movements, a pastorale-like Largo, bookended by two Allegro movements. The music is attractive and workmanlike and at times dramatic, but without the genius of Haydn or Mozart. Bernard Labadie used a very small orchestra, including two oboes, bassoon, two horns and strings.

Although violinist Isabelle Faust has a wide repertoire, she is perhaps best known for her probing, historically-informed performances of well-known masterpieces. Such was the sensibility she brought to Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. Her sound was quite light, balanced, and she often eschewed vibrato, which she used at will to enhance phrases, almost as ornamentation. Her technical facility was flawless. Faust made this famous music sing as if it were new.

But often the balances between soloist and orchestra often were not right. After Labadie’s use of a chamber-sized orchestra for the Rigel symphony, I thought perhaps the Mendelssohn might be scaled at a similar size; that did not happen. The Cleveland Orchestra, although famed for its unity and elegance of phrasing, often swamped the soloist; their sound was gauged to a more traditionally “Romantic” performance. Faust’s legato and sparing use of vibrato in the second movement was perfect; at this smaller scale of playing, it was necessary to “re-tune” one’s ears to capture the subtleties of her playing. In the feathery-light final movement, the woodwinds seemed sometimes to be lagging slightly behind the soloist’s tempo in their unison passages.

Labadie conducted the concert while seated on a piano stool atop the conductor’s podium. Whether because of physical necessity or aesthetic decision, it made for much more intimate communication between conductor and orchestra, especially in Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K550. Labadie conducted in a style that recognized The Cleveland Orchestra for the chamber orchestra it really is at heart. Phrases were molded sensitively; tempos were practical. Labadie was especially skilled at building the tension in Mozart’s music and relaxing it in a smooth arc. The second movement was, alas, marred by Lunar New Year fireworks being exploded close by in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood. Severance Hall usually has very good sound isolation – there is a major street running the length of the building – but it wasn’t enough to keep the audience from feeling that there was some sort of attack going on nearby. Luckily the extraneous noise ended in time for the last two movements of Mozart’s beloved symphony.