The Cleveland Orchestra this week served up a welcome batch of British music, plus a Richard Strauss favorite, under the expert direction of guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1944 Oboe Concerto received its Cleveland Orchestra premiere, with principal oboe Frank Rosenwein. Frederick Delius’ Brigg Fair, which has not been performed by the orchestra in over 60 years, opened the program. Two further principals, cellist Mark Kosower and violist Wesley Collins, were also featured in Strauss’ Don Quixote. It added up to a superb evening.

Frank Rosenwein and Sir Andrew Davis © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Frank Rosenwein and Sir Andrew Davis
© Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Frederick Delius described Brigg Fair as a “rhapsody”; it is a set of variations on a British folk song recorded by Percy Grainger at a North Lincolnshire fair in 1905. Grainger suggested to Delius that he make something of the tune. Brigg Fair is in the British pastoral style most often associated with Ralph Vaughan Williams. The music is melodic, sensuous and often gently rocking, with the folk song never far away after its initial statement in the oboe. The theme is developed to a climactic moment with rapturous bells ringing to accompany the full orchestra before it fades away to a pianissimo orchestral equivalent of a Technicolor sunset. Davis’ experience with this music was obvious, in his emphasis of orchestral color and constant flexibility of musical phrases, stretching while always maintaining forward momentum.

Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto has been unfairly neglected; it is a virtuoso showpiece for the soloist, using the full resources of that potentially recalcitrant instrument in intricate passagework as well as in long-sustained lyrical phrases, from bottom to the very top of the range. Rosenwein was a brilliant soloist, completely mastering these challenges. His tone was sometimes delicate; at other times his sound broadened to match the music. Vaughan Williams scored the concerto for string orchestra, thus providing contrast between soloist and accompaniment. Davis managed the balances so that the oboe was never removed from prominence. Although performed with seeming ease, the string parts have their own intricacies. Although the music seemed folksong-like, it was in the style, not quoting any particular songs. The first movement is a pastorale, the second a perky minuet, and the third a perpetually moving scherzo, apart from two sustained passages, the second of which is a soaring autumnal melody that brings the concerto to its close before a short, virtuosic coda ending with the soloist on a soft very high held note. It is hard to imagine a more admirable performance than this; soloist, conductor and orchestra seemed to be in perfect harmony.

The choice of Don Quixote to close the program in a contrast to the opening Brigg Fair seemed like a masterstroke. Both are elaborate variations full of picturesque musical descriptions, Brigg Fair on an English tune, and Don Quixote, variations on a Spanish literary masterpiece as seen through the eyes of a young German composer. As in the Delius work, Davis emphasized musical color and a sure hand with the dramatic elements in Strauss’ 1897 symphonic poem, which the composer subtitled “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character”. The solo cello plays the role of Don Quixote and the solo viola represents the knight’s trusty companion, Sancho Panza. All the musical themes are heard in the work’s introduction before being stretched, rearranged and combined in the succeeding ten variations. Each variation depicts an episode in Quixote’s saga: tilting at windmills, battling a flock of sheep, and the concluding the battle with the Knight of the Shining Moon. Cellist Mark Kosower caught the mercurial nature of his knightly role, sometimes aggressive, other times heroically passionate. Wesley Collins is in his first season as principal viola with The Cleveland Orchestra, and he showed excellent technical facility and a beautiful lyricism. The viola solos are incidental to the cello solos in Don Quixote; Collins deserves his own solo spotlight soon.