The Cleveland Orchestra is often described in superlatives, but this weekend’s concert left one grasping for the right adjectives: powerful, brilliant, daring all come to mind in the TCO’s performances of Prokofiev’s “Classical" Symphony and the Symphony no. 3 in C minor. And Yefim Bronfman’s performance as soloist in Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major was nothing short of astonishing in its technical perfection and grasp of the work’s architecture.

Yefim Bronfman
© Frank Stewart

Bartók is known for his work as a folklorist, collecting hundreds of central European folk songs, and his orchestrations are renowned for their intricacy and color. But he also was an extraordinary pianist, concertizing mostly from the necessity to earn a living. His piano concertos were composed for his own purposes as a traveling soloist. His Second Piano Concerto from 1930-31 makes extreme technical demands on the soloist, with fistfuls of huge chords, mostly at very loud dynamics, and cascades of intricate passagework. The first movement is accompanied only by woodwinds and brass. The music is alternately savage and melodious. In Bronfman’s performance, he sometimes overpowered the orchestra's dynamics, yet somehow managed to make his virtuosity seem natural.

Mysterious, very soft, slow parallel chords in the strings played without vibrato in the second movement alternated with solo piano passages. The center section was another loud, very fast and dissonant passage for full orchestra and piano, before subsiding to the opening music, transposed to a higher register. Bronfman's playing had an eerie quality that proved to be the quiet before the storm of the third movement, a fierce dance with shrieks from strings and winds, and thunderous piano playing from Bronfman. This was a tour de force that even this soon in the new season can be marked as a highlight of the year.

Franz Welser-Möst rarely speaks to the audience during concerts, but on this occasion, he made remarks about Prokofiev’s Third Symphony and its relationship to Siegmund Freud's theories and expressionism that informed artistic works after World War 1, in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Lulu and, especially, Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel, from which the music of the Third was extracted. In Welser-Möst's words, Prokofiev's opera and symphony "explore the complexity of the human soul”. If we take the music at sonic face value, the soul is unusually tormented. Those who know Prokofiev from Peter and the Wolf and his Classical Symphony must have been shocked. The symphony's music is dissonant, highly complex in texture and structure, with little respite from musical tension. Indeed, contrasted with Berg’s romanticism in Lulu, the twelve-tone opera is a walk in the park! Even the more lyrical second movement ends inconclusively. The fourth movement is a nightmarish portrait of evil. Welser-Möst and TCO were at their highest levels of achievement in this performance. It was often uncomfortable to listen to, but always compelling. Performers and audience were likely exhausted at the end.

The concert had opened with a spritely, transparent, and precise reading of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony in D major. Welser-Möst kept it moving, appropriately never lingering over this loving pastiche of the Classical symphonies of Haydn and early Mozart. The fourth movement was especially quick, and for many lesser ensembles the tempo would have created a fiasco, but The Cleveland Orchestra kept up with uncanny precision.