After a couple of weeks of holiday, The Cleveland Orchestra was back at Severance Hall this weekend in top form with Music Director Franz Welser-Möst for an all-Beethoven program featuring Yefim Bronfman, a Cleveland favorite, as the soloist. It was immensely satisfying from beginning to end.

Yefim Bronfman © Dario Acosta
Yefim Bronfman
© Dario Acosta
Welser-Möst introduced his own version of Beethoven's late String Quartet no. 15 in A minor, Op.132 with somber spoken remarks about Beethoven's interest in philosophy and humankind's "fight for good." He memorialized composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, a Cleveland (not to mention worldwide) musical icon, whom Welser-Möst characterized as the most important figure in classical music of the last 50 years. Welser-Möst asked the audience to rise while he read a poem by T.S. Eliot in Boulez's memory.

That intimate musical medium, the string quartet, took on a much different aspect played with full string orchestra. (The double basses mostly doubled the cello line an octave lower.) The Cleveland Orchestra enriched Beethoven's textures, yet with lean, chamber music precision, giving the quartet an autumnal, almost Straussian feel. The 40-minute work comprised the first half of the concert. The first movement's mysteriously chromatic opening theme subsequently contrasted between minor and major tonalities and strikingly agitated passages giving way to calm. The second movement minuet flowed easily, with dialogues between upper and lower strings. The short pastoral drone added a sense of nostalgia. The chorale of the third movement was lyrical, legato, organ-like in texture. The march of the fourth movement ended in a recitative, played here by concertmaster William Preucil, leading directly to the final fifth movement, contrapuntally similar to the first movement. (How striking to hear, suddenly, a solo instrument in the midst of the lush orchestral texture.) The ending was supremely lyrical. Franz Welser-Möst's transcription of Beethoven's quartet might have seemed like a dodgy idea, but it was, in fact, convincing and, in its way, a tremendously moving tribute to Pierre Boulez.

The string quartet was one of Beethoven's last works. For the second half of the concert Welser-Möst returned to works written when Beethoven was in his 30s. After the strikingly forward-looking quartet (especially in its transcription here), the Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor of 1800-1803, put us back in familiar territory. Bronfman was magisterial in his performance, bringing an immense range of colors to his playing. He was assertive, even thunderous, in the climaxes, but his playing was often mellifluous and lyrical, bound by completely controlled legato and phrasing. The cadenza at the end of the first movement was rapturous. In the second movement Bronfman accompanied wind soloists with cascades of soft arpeggios and perfectly matched detached ascending scales. The third movement followed without pause, and one was again struck by the clarity of both the orchestral and piano playing.

The Fantasia in C minor, op. 80 (the "Choral Fantasy") of 1808 is not top-drawer Beethoven, but performed with pizzazz, as it was here with Bronfman back as soloist and The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus in the finale, it made for a rousing and heroic closer. Bronfman got right to it, not even waiting for the applause to die down, before his long, improvisatory solo introduction. Even after the orchestra enters in bits and pieces, the dialogue between soloist and orchestra continues to feel improvised. It is often noted that the "Choral Fantasy" may have been Beethoven's first shot at working out what would much later return as the Ode to Joy theme in his Symphony no. 9. The main theme of the "Choral Fantasy" certainly does bear more than a passing resemblance to the arc of the tune in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. The fantasy's text, by Christoph Kuffner, is of a similar philosophy as Schiller's Ode to Joy, the triumph of humanity over the adversities of life. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was right on top of things, with robust sound, precise intonation, and clear diction. At the heroic conclusion, I wanted to leap to my feet and shout, which, apparently, is what the rest of the audience wanted as well!

After a lengthly set of bows, Franz Welser-Möst stepped to the front of the stage to announce a "special surprise" for a friend of the orchestra, Cleveland philanthropist Norma Lerner. Yefim Bronfman sat down again at the piano, and the forces launched into the beginning of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1, which quickly morphed into an over-the-top arrangement of "Happy birthday". It was a raucous ending to a concert that had begun with such somber tones.