If there is one guest conductor who has dependably yielded stellar results with The Cleveland Orchestra in recent seasons, surely it would be Jakub Hrůša. This season, he has earned himself a two week residency, the first of which paired a Shostakovich concerto with a Beethoven symphony. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor was composed in the years immediately following World War 2, but withheld for nearly a decade until Stalin had died and artistic censorship had (somewhat) lightened – a sure sign of the turmoil from which the concerto sprouted (it was even temporarily assigned a later opus number to mask the earlier composition date).

Jakub Hrůša © Petra Klackova
Jakub Hrůša
© Petra Klackova

Serving as soloist was Sergey Khachatryan, with whom Hrůša collaborated with on this stage two seasons ago. The low strings introduced a desolate melody in the solo violin, darkened by Khachatryan’s deep, burnished tone. An unsettling wandering pervaded this opening Nocturne, in time building to an intensity more defiant than passionate. In a particularly striking moment, the violin’s upper register was pitted against otherworldly timbres from the harp and celesta, leading to the movement’s withering end. The Scherzo was as caustic as it was flippant, with bold virtuosity from both soloist and orchestra. There were echoes of the DSCH motif, as well as inflections of Jewish folk music – the use of which was subversive in its own right.

Any glimmers of light were snuffed out by the ensuing Passacaglia, the dark heart of the work. The passacaglia theme was first presented in an imposing statement from the brass and matters unfolded with haunting power. The cadenza, serving to bridge the final two movements, proceeded as a stately extended monologue, with Khachatryan’s blistering technique in full view. A driving, unrelenting dance made for the closing Burlesca, recalling the Scherzo’s mindset of sarcasm and ambiguity.

The balance of the evening was dedicated to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and Hrůša gave what can be a warhorse a fresh workout. The orchestra was repositioned in a neatly-proportioned symmetry, sharply contrasted by the revolutionary music that was to come. Majestic chords launched an arresting opening, followed by the outlining of the E flat major triad. While gracefully played, the colors introduced early and often by foreign notes signaled the long and arduous journey ahead. Textures were of crisp, sharp articulations, with Hrůša instinctively knowing how to capitalize on these musicians’ thorough command of the work. The chain of dissonant chords in the development was delivered with a raw energy, as jarring as ever, even to the modern ear.

Mournful dotted rhythms, countered by plaintive oboes and resonant strings, marked the funeral march, with the maggiore sections offering occasional flickers of triumph. In a possible analogue to the Passacaglia of the preceding Shostakovich, the Eroica too found its emotional core in a darkly colored slow movement. Quite to the other extreme was the fleet Scherzo, which started as a whisper and quickly amassed in volume and vigor. The horns reigned in the trio section, of a brilliant luster if not always flawless intonation. The finale, wherein Beethoven worked wonders with a simple, unassuming theme, was bold and brisk and the conductor did much to draw out the intricate inner voices with uncommon nuance.

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