The distinguished Polish conductor Marek Janowski projected an austere and reserved presence when he appeared on the Severance Hall stage for the opening of Saturday evening’s subscription concert. But once on the podium, he was transformed, leading a program that seemed not very promising on paper – two early Beethoven symphonies, with a 1940s Hindemith sound spectacular sandwiched between them – into a lively and satisfying evening, both as music history lesson as well as sheer musical pleasure. This was Marek Janowski's third guest appearance in three seasons. On this occasion he replaced the originally scheduled Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, after the Spaniard's death in June this year.

Marek Janowski © Felix Broede
Marek Janowski
© Felix Broede

Beethoven's Symphony no. 1 in C major, Op.21, was his homage to Haydn, after studying briefly with the older master, and beginning work as a professional musician (especially as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser) in Vienna in the shadow of both Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven sketched his symphony in 1795, but it was not completed until 1798, first appearing on a program that included, among other things, a Mozart symphony, part of Haydn's The Creation, a piano concerto, and piano improvisations.

The Symphony no. 1 is harmonically straightforward, compared to Beethoven's later adventurous harmonic experiments. (The performance of the Symphony no. 2 later in the program demonstrated how much Beethoven had grown just in a couple of years.) The musical interval of the perfect fourth (C to F, both ascending and descending) form a common theme in the first and second movements. The third movement, although labelled as Menuetto, is much more what we would recognize as a scherzo, a brief fast movement in triple meter, although still with the characteristic Trio middle section and the opening section repeated. The fourth movement's big opening chord, followed by a tentative upward scale in the strings, sets the stage for the main body of the movement, ending in a joyful C major. The performance by Janowski and the Cleveland Orchestra was energetic, with brilliant precision of the many very fast unison scale passages. There was also the orchestra's trademark refinement of phrasing. This was a fine example of how the Cleveland Orchestra performs as a large chamber ensemble, with each of the sections listening and responding to the rest.

Paul Hindemith's 1943 Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, arose out of an abortive ballet collaboration with the choreographer Léonide Massine, who had previously worked with Hindemith on the composer's Nobilissima visione. Hindemith gathered the themes from a variety of Weber's music, mostly from sources unknown to today's listening public, and the 20th century German's transformation of them is brilliantly and grandly weird, using a huge orchestra (with six percussionists, including timpani, who play a central part in the musical progress.) There are four movements, the second and fourth of which are in musical technicolor. Turandot, the second movement, is an exercise in musical chinoiserie, with a pseudo-Chinese melody dissected and reassembled in continually changing variations, with a growing collection of trills threatening to derail the whole business. The fourth movement March foreshadows the movie film scores of John Williams and others, with heroic themes and brassy fanfares at the end. The third movement Andantino is more straightforward, with a melody and accompaniment. Toward the end, a florid flute solo provides frilly décor above the melody in the clarinet and horn. Principal flute Joshua Smith received a well-deserved solo bow at the end of this colorful performance of Hindemith's hilarious symphonic masterpiece.

The performance of Beethoven's First Symphony that opened this concert was performed with a substantially reduced orchestra; for the closing performance of the Second, the string sections were increased to more or less modern symphonic size. This was no mere logistical exercise on the part of the Cleveland Orchestra; it was indicative of Beethoven's compositional development. His new ideas required greater musical capacity. Completed in 1802, the symphony also marks a profound change in Beethoven's musical psyche: how to deal with his deepening hearing loss at the age of only 30 years. It makes the good-natured D major of the Second Symphony all the more remarkable. Other compositional elements show Beethoven's freedom from Haydn's boundaries: off-beat accents, extreme and dramatic dynamic contrasts, abrupt modulations. His musical motifs become shorter, getting to the essence of compositional structure; he can build a movement from as little as two or three note themes. The Cleveland Orchestra and Marek Janowski gave a sensitive – and sensible – performance. The tempi seemed just right; the gentle scherzo, with its little phrases traded back and forth among the sections, had just the right blend of elegance and humor. The sudden attaca into the fourth movement jolted the audience into paying attention to the Beethoven's jovial finale and his emergence as his own compositional man, ready to produce the monumental works yet to come.