Many of the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal players are active soloists and chamber musicians in their own right; moreover, the orchestra regularly engages its members as featured soloists for Severance Hall and Blossom Festival concerts. At this week’s concerts principal cello Mark Kosower was soloist for Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor Op. 104, under the the direction of guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who proved that even such well-known favorites as the Dvořák concerto and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony can be refreshed, with a new outlook revealing previously unheard details. One wonders if the two works on the program were especially chosen because they were both in the key of B minor and composed within a couple of years of each other, in the first half of the 1890s. Both are supreme achievements of orchestral romanticism.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin U.K. Lengemann | CAMI
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin U.K. Lengemann | CAMI

Dvořák’s concerto was written in 1894-1895 in New York, during the composer’s time as director of the National Conservatory. It is the work of a mature master, with surging passages for the full orchestra, and brilliantly inventive solutions for the problem of maintaining balance between cello and orchestra. Only at climactic passages is the solo cello accompanied by the full orchestra; rather, the orchestra is treated more as a collection of chamber ensembles, creating a thinner, but still sonorous, texture for the soloist. Mark Kosower gave a very respectable performance of the concerto. His sound is not huge and powerful, but well-defined, almost “wiry,” with elegant phrasing and musicality. The first movement had some tentative ensemble moments, which may be attributable to opening night jitters. The second and third movements were solid.

There were numerous moments of great beauty: the flowing cello melody with arpeggiated strings at the beginning of the second movement; the noble horn chorale passages in the same movement. The end of the second movement was serenely lush. The third movement is a rondo, with a series of striking modulations, ending finally in B major with the reappearance of the main theme of the first movement. It is not a mere showpiece for the solo, but a fully integrated movement for orchestra and soloist. Kosower was fully up to the concerto’s many challenges, and was enthusiastically acclaimed by both the audience and his Cleveland Orchestra colleagues.

Herbert Blomstedt, now in the sixth decade of his career, returned in the second half to lead Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.74 “Pathétique”. One can only imagine how many times Blomstedt must have conducted this symphony, yet there was nothing routine about it. He conducted with an admirable combination of youthful vigor and musicianship than can only come from years of experience. As was the case in Blomstedt’s 2013 appearance in Cleveland, the orchestra responded to his every direction.

The first movement’s opening passages for low strings and winds were brooding, with a sense of foreboding, but once it got going, this performance moved along briskly. Blomstedt provided drama without resorting to theatrics, with a clarity of texture allowing interesting details to come through. The second movement off-kilter “waltz” was gentle, never in a rush. The thrilling third movement march had its usual effect: a few audience members were so enthused that they began to applaud at its end, only to have a stern reproof from the conductor in the form of a withering look and wriggling fingers behind his back. Blomstedt allowed the barest pause between the third and fourth movements. After a respite from the drama of the first movement in the second and third parts of the symphony, the bleakness returns for the fourth. Despite passages of ferocious passion, Blomstedt never let the tempo lag. The symphony ends as it began, in the low strings, with an unsettling inconclusiveness. Blomstedt held the audience rapt for a long silence after the music ended, no small feat given the generally restless audience behavior that had been exhibited through the whole concert.

Blomstedt seems to be a guest conductor with whom the Cleveland Orchestra has good rapport. We can hope that the relationship continues with more visits from him in the future.

***11