No one can accuse The Cleveland Orchestra of being slackers, especially in this 100th anniversary season. In the next few weeks, they will play several concert performances of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a one-off performance of Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. With this weekend's concerts, TCO continued their prodigious workload under guest conductor Jakub Hrůša in Josef Suk's hour-long Asrael Symphony, before which Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan was the soloist in Johannes Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major.

Sergey Khachatryan © Marco Borggreve
Sergey Khachatryan
© Marco Borggreve

Suk's vast five-movement symphony, named after Asrael, the Old Testament Angel of Death. It was written in 1905-06 after the death of Antonín Dvořák, Suk's father-in-law, and Suk's wife Otilie (Dvořák's daughter) Composers were searching for new modes of expression to follow Wagner's chromatic tonality. Strauss' erotically-charged opera Salomé dates from 1905, Schoenberg was experimenting with atonality, while Scriabin combined rich tonality with mysticism.

The Asrael Symphony is essentially a five-movement "dance of death" with a recurring theme representing the Angel of Death. The music is emotionally charged, often aggressive and barely clinging to tonality. There are echoes of Strauss' symphonic poems and the repeated ostinatos portend Janáček's later works. The musical structure is complex but composed of readily identifiable musical forms such as fugues and a scherzo-like third movement. These segments are molded into a dense and continuously changing texture. The orchestration is inventive, with use of low-voiced instruments (double basses, trombones, tubas, bass drums) emphasize bleak foreboding, while the quietly radiant diatonic closing moments of the symphony bring a sense of redemption.

The Cleveland Orchestra has performed the Asrael Symphony only twice before, most recently in 1992, so there is no regular performance history of the work here. It is likely that the majority of the orchestra's musicians were performing it for the first time. Jakub Hrůša led a convincingly dramatic performance, conducting from memory. Although here and there some details may have been smudged, what mattered was the overall dramatic arc of the work, with passages of almost chaotic darkness followed by a momentary easing of tension. There were numerous solo passages throughout, including lengthy clarinet and English horn passages. In an odd but striking moment, three solo flutes play a fanfare figuration hidden in the orchestral texture but repeated a few moments later by three solo trumpets. The closing movement, with its transition from feverish grief to comforting solace, was worth the price of admission.

Brahms' Violin Concerto is a Cleveland favorite, performed frequently by the greatest soloists of their time beginning with Efram Zimbalist in 1920. Sergey Khachatryan, the latest in that line, was an earnest and conscientious soloist, self-effacing, shuffling uncomfortably on stage when he wasn't playing. His performance emphasized lyricism over heroic drama, although he clearly had the technical aspects of the concerto well in hand. Indeed, the more delicate, restrained aspects of the concerto were most successful, including the first movement cadenza and the poised second movement. The long oboe solo that opens the second movement was beautifully played by the orchestra's assistant principal Jeffrey Rathbun. The third movement was robust but never overwrought. Khachatryan, who is still relatively early in his career, will eventually likely extract more depth from his performance of this concerto. He returned for a hauntingly simple and quiet encore, a 10th-century Armenian song, which he played exquisitely.