One of the positives of concert life in the midst of the pandemic has been the opportunity to discover unfamiliar repertoire. When the music presented is dictated by health restrictions, it necessarily shifts our focus away from the standard orchestral programming, more often than not resulting in an exploration of the considerable body of work for string orchestra. The final episode of The Cleveland Orchestra’s In Focus series ended just as the season began with what amounted to yet another jubilant celebration of the strings. In Focus has been an unqualified success, and tantalizing as next season’s return to in-person concerts at Severance Hall is, streaming offerings will continue in some capacity with details yet to be revealed.

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

Grieg’s Holberg Suite takes its structural cue from the Baroque dance suites of Bach’s time, contemporary with the eponymous playwright’s, but unmistakably tempered by a 19th-century Romantic sensibility. The Praeludium radiated both warmth and vigor, with graciously flowing melodic material. The Sarabande was touching in its repose and ardent lyricism, especially when matters were distilled to three solo cellos. A sprightly charm marked the Gavotte, while the deeply felt Air served as the heart of the work. Rapid interplay between concertmaster Peter Otto and principal viola Wesley Collins made the closing Rigaudon especially joyous.

The remainder of the program was occupied by Korngold's rarely performed Symphonic Serenade. Written in the late 1940s and premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1950, it marked the composer's return to the European concert stage following the Second World War during which the Jewish composer lived in exile as a film composer in Hollywood, a stint which garnered him two Academy Awards. The Serenade borrows extensively from his film scores (as did the violin and cello concertos, written contemporaneously), but also bears the same lushness recognizable from his earlier works – which by mid-century, often led the composer to be viewed as outdated.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The opening movement was marked by sumptuous, arching melody, filled in with rich harmonies – which under Franz Welser-Möst’s astute guidance never came across muddled, dense as the material got. An Intermezzo was aurally striking in its rapid pizzicatos, while the Lento religioso – the work’s longest movement – was gorgeous and serene, displaying the many colors of the strings, from the deeply resonant to stratospherically high. The Allegro con fuoco made for a rousing conclusion, abounding in intricate contrapuntal textures. For listeners now particularly keen to discover more Korngold, a performance of the Symphony in F sharp major is on the calendar in the early weeks of next season.

This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream