“Being asked to do [Mozart’s Linz Symphony] with The Cleveland Orchestra is like being asked to drive a Maserati. You’re not going to say, ‘No, I’d rather take a bicycle,’” remarked Nicholas McGegan in a recent interview with Cleveland Classical, and it was with this enthusiasm and delight he took the podium at Severance Hall last weekend. The program, presented in its entirety only on Saturday evening, was neatly proportioned, with both halves anchored by a major score of Mozart, each preceded with a suite by Rameau and Gluck respectively.

Marc-André Hamelin © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Marc-André Hamelin
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The affable McGegan opened the performance by addressing the audience with an overview of the suite from Rameau’s opera Dardanus, particularly useful as the program books neglected to indicate which excerpts would be performed. Dotted rhythms characterized the overture, encouraged by McGegan’s graceful, batonless conducting, while Joela Jones’ continuo provided gravitas throughout. The lively Tambourins followed, replete with martial drumming. Derived from the earlier keyboard piece Les niais de Sologne, McGegan suggested that the upward, unanswered gestures of the Air gai en rondeau were a musical approximation of the purported clueless shrugging of the titular simpletons. The closing Chaconne boasted an elegant, memorable theme with some particularly fine contrapuntal negotiation in the bassoons.

While much of Marc-André Hamelin’s reputation rests on the 19th- and 20th-century fingerbusters, his peerless technique also lends itself remarkably well to the classical repertoire, unforgiving in its transparency, and he proved to be an ideal soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major. A watershed work in the composer’s catalogue, it contravened tradition in calling upon the soloist from the onset in a sprightly call and response with the orchestra. The ensuing orchestral tutti was poised with a finely-tuned balance and acuity. Hamelin’s playing was of the utmost clarity; a contrasting arpeggiated theme added a singing richness while a recurring sighing figure evidenced a certain melancholy beneath the concerto’s sunny veneer.

The pianist’s long, quasi-operatic melodic line in the slow movement foreshadowed the soul-bearing central to Mozart’s later concertos, but after that intense solemnity, the finale was as effervescent as anything the composer wrote. Hamelin’s speedy fingers slowed down only in the lovely Menuetto cantabile section, a moment of serenity in this high-energy rondo. As an encore, Hamelin presented the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K545. Familiar as it may be to any young piano student, this was no trifle for Hamelin who even observed the repeat of the exposition, and his luminous reading was nothing short of revelatory.

The opening sinfonia to Gluck’s ballet Don Juan marked a clear departure from Baroque practices, unadorned and direct. A winding oboe solo by Frank Rosenwein made the subsequent Serenade especially charming, and a series of brief dances followed including a fandango, unmistakably Spanish as colored by the castanets. The concluding selection introduced a pair of thunder sheets for dramatic effect in the Don’s descent to hell, surely presaging the analogous scene in Mozart’s opera on the same subject, and the suite ended with the ominous, unsettled rumble of thunder. A tip of the hat to the percussionist who managed to proceed unfettered when one of the sheets unexpectedly toppled.

Mozart’s Symphony no. 36 in C major, nicknamed “Linz” for the city in which he composed it (which, incidentally, is the hometown of music director Franz Welser-Möst), made for a pearly close to the evening. The first of Mozart’s symphonies to take a cue from Haydn in opening with a slow introduction, the following Allegro spiritoso flowed with an apparent ease, unusually lyrical for an opening movement. The Andante was refined, occasionally darkened by shadings in the minor, and the Menuetto was given with a rhythmic punch, contrasted by the gentle trio which suggested a ländler. As spirited an affair as the finale was, it was not without ample weight in its imposing sonata form and elegantly executed counterpoint of the instrumental voices.