Severance Hall was packed this weekend for a rare appearance by violinist Joshua Bell with the Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst conducting. There should have been no disappointment; the concert was brilliantly executed from beginning to end. This review is based on the performance of Saturday, 19 January.

Joshua Bell © Chris Lee
Joshua Bell
© Chris Lee

Jörg Widmann’s Lied (2003, revised 2009) opened the concert. Munich-born Widmann served as The Cleveland Orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer from 2009–11. The orchestra performed several of Widmann’s works during his residency; however, this was the orchestra’s first performance of Lied. A homage to Schubert’s songs, the work takes place on two simultaneous musical planes, parallel musical universes that interact and sometimes collide. On one level is an orchestral adagio in the style of Mahler or Richard Strauss, with traditional harmony and sounding vaguely familiar; the other level is a mostly vaporous modernist musical stream: quiet, fragmentary and employing expanded harmonies, including microtonal scales, and unusual orchestration (for example, a prominent part for accordion). The two planes fade in and out of focus from each other, but sometimes are combined. The work develops over its 20-minute span, but ends inconclusively. Mr Welser-Möst led a subtle performance, distinguishing the two musical planes, yet bringing out the complexity of their interactions. The orchestral textures were transparent, with many opportunities for soloists to shine. Lied is worth reviving in the future.

Béla Bartók’s Dance Suite, written in 1923 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the combination of the cities of Buda and Pest as the capital of Hungary, shows the strong influence composer’s collections of eastern European folk songs, with their spiky melodies and jagged rhythms. He treats the folk material freely, orchestrating it in typically brilliant Bartókian fashion. The six movements flow from one to the next with no pause. The straightforward fourth movement was especially effective here, with its unison octaves in the winds alternating with pulsing string chords. The final movement brings back themes from previous movements for a rousing conclusion. Under Welser-Möst’s direction, it was a romp.

After intermission Joshua Bell was the soloist in Beethoven’s monumental Violin Concerto in D major. Beethoven vastly expanded the concerto form to symphonic length. But this was not a monumental performance; it was chamber music-like, with Mr Bell’s refined sound blending perfectly with the orchestra. From the first four timpani notes, Welser-Möst led an opening movement of urgency, yet with moments of repose. After the cadenza (of Mr Bell’s own devising, a very Romantic “fantasia on themes from Beethoven’s Violin Concerto”) the orchestral entrance was serene; the previous urgency was gone momentarily, but picked up again for the final cadence.

Between the first and second movements, the evening’s otherwise attentive audience let loose with a cacophony of coughing, the side effect of of winter flu season in Cleveland. It went on at such length that there was a nervous chuckle that went through the hall. A patient soloist, conductor and orchestra waited until peace was restored before resuming. The long pause did, however, detract from the flow of the concerto’s movements.

The second movement was of utmost delicacy and refinement, with exquisite flexibility of pulse. Orchestra and soloist were attuned to the timeless serenity of the movement. A series of strong chords led to Mr Bell’s short cadenza linking the second movement to the rondo third movement, which proceeded almost as a perpetual motion machine. The cadenza was full of astonishing technical feats. At the concerto’s joyful conclusion, the audience spontaneously leaped to their feet, with cheers, whistles and thunderous applause for the performers.

****1