Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša led a particularly interesting program this weekend with The Cleveland Orchestra, beginning with the orchestra's first performance of Bohuslav Martinů’s 1957–58 suite Parables, inspired by writings of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Georges Neveux. Even without the programmatic implications of the literary works, the three movements are uncommonly beautiful showing a composer still at the height of his powers a year before his death.

Jakub Hrůša © Prague Philharmonia | V Krsul
Jakub Hrůša
© Prague Philharmonia | V Krsul

The first parable refers to observers of a sculpture whose countenance had just been fixed by the sculptor. The viewers were “changed” in some subtle way. The music has an undulating lyricism, with tonal modulation to ever-higher keys, and orchestration that thickens, leading to a brief climax before settling in a wistful ending. The second parable is about the life cycle of plants and human beings. Melodies here and in the other movements are sinuous, twisting around each other with very few notes developed at length. The movement ends quietly in a soft, radiant B major passage. The third parable describes the legend of Theseus in the labyrinth meeting Ariadne and fighting the Minotaur. The music is more harsh, almost militaristic, with prominent percussion parts. The meter changes to a festive waltz, reaching a climax, but suddenly become very soft with wind solos accompanied only by harp and pizzicato strings. Tension builds again, to an abrupt fortissimo ending. The orchestra’s playing was lush, with gleaming harp and percussion. Tricky interweaving of polyphonic lines sounded natural, as if the melodies were played in unison but slightly offset in the various instruments. Based on this performance, Parables is a beautiful work deserving more frequent revival.

The brilliant and sometimes controversial pianist Yuja Wang made a return visit to Severance Hall in Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 1. Several weeks ago Yuja Wang was the subject of a long profile in The New Yorker which described her growth as a musician and her desire to expand beyond the handful of virtuosic 19th- and early 20th-century concertos that brought her initial fame. This week’s concert was evidence of much greater musical maturity than her first performance with the orchestra in 2011. Her Bartók was technically astonishing; she and Hrůša’s also sensed the thorny structures of the work. Somewhat unusually, she played from a score.

The stage was set in an unorthodox way. The piano and percussion for the Bartók were pre-set on the hall’s orchestra pit floor, which was raised to stage height for the concerto, putting piano and percussion in place. The second movement of the concerto predominately features three percussionists as accompaniment, so the set-up made sense. The side effect was to put the piano in front of the Severance Hall stage acoustical shell, which, from my seat, led to some disconcerting reflections of the piano sound.

Bartók wrote his first concerto for himself to play. The technical demands are many and unending, the piano playing almost constantly. The music is often percussive, and echoes of the Hungarian folk music that Bartók collected were often present. The first movement has many tricky tempo changes which Wang and Hrůša managed with aplomb. The second movement was similar to some of Bartok’s “night music”  in other works. Both piano and percussion were “dry” acoustically, almost silent, with fragmentary, jagged musical motifs. Eventually solo oboe and clarinet join the ensemble, beginning a gradual orchestral crescendo. At the end of the movement Wang played a series of feathery pianissimo arpeggios that were incredible in their half-light texture. The third movement, which followed without pause, was astounding pianism of utmost virtuosity and ferocity. The ensemble between solo gave every impression of being accurate. Wang returned for an encore, Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s song “Gretchen am Spinnrade”. She made it sound easy, which it was not.

A visit to the lyric grandeur of Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 in E minor was a tonic for the ears after the harsh aggression of Bartok’s concerto. Hrůša’s reading was restrained, from the almost hesitant opening of the first movement. But he built the arch of the movement, building tension over its course. The other movements had those same virtues of lyricism, especially in the gentle second movement, and even in the rambunctious scherzo. The fourth movement’s passacaglia was beautifully shaped to its tumultuous close.