The Cleveland Orchestra played their first full in-person concerts last week in an American Independence Day orchestral spectacular. This Sunday’s all-Mozart concert was considerably more refined. Dame Jane Glover was the perfect conductor, with forces considerably reduced. Pianist Conrad Tao was a superb concerto soloist, replacing the previously announced Benjamin Grosvenor, who was unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Conrad Tao
© Brantley Gutierrez

The Divertimento in D major, K.136 for string orchestra was one of three divertimenti composed by Mozart in 1772 at the age of 16. He was already a supreme master of elegant melody. The three movements (Allegro-Andante-Presto) showed The Cleveland Orchestra’s legendary precision, enhanced by subtlety of phrasing and dynamics. Glover encouraged the orchestra’s natural tendencies, with releases that seemed magically to lift off the notes at the ends of significant phrases.

Conrad Tao is one of a group of younger versatile pianists who are equally adept at performing Ligeti, Carter or Julia Wolfe, as well as Mozart and Beethoven. The control of technique and dynamics required for modern music seemed to inform his subtle performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K.488, composed in 1786. There was an easy elegance to his nuanced playing, with excellent balances between orchestra and soloist. The K.488 is of the few Mozart piano concertos with Mozart’s own written-out cadenza for the first movement; Tao’s performance of the cadenza was blazingly Romantic, taking full advantage of the modern Steinway piano’s dynamic range and power. Even if it was anachronistic, it was spectacular.

The second movement opens with solo piano alone in a Siciliano rhythm. The orchestra enters with a pulse which remains steady throughout the movement. The textures were spare; the dynamics were subdued. In stark contrast to the preceding music, the solo piano immediately launched into the rambunctious third movement. The movement is a rondo, combined with a sonata-allegro form, thus making the development and recapitulation more closely resemble the return of the rondo theme. It was a joyous romp.

As an encore, Conrad Tao played Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op. 116, no. 4. It was restrained and dreamy, with sumptuous flexibility of rhythm and phrasing, as if he was improvising.

The concert closed with one of Mozart’s most famous symphonies, the Symphony no. 40, in G minor, K.550, composed in 1788. There is no firm documentation that the symphony was performed during Mozart’s life; however, the existence of a second, later version including two clarinets in the orchestration indicates that a performance may have occurred. The Cleveland Orchestra played the original version. Each movement had its special characteristics. The first movement had uncommon urgency, but Jane Glover never lost the piece’s lyrical thread. In a concert of carefully managed structures and textures, the sounds in the second movement had special clarity. The minuet was robust and syncopated; the trio section was more relaxed. The duets between oboes and horns were details that sometimes might be overlooked, but not here. Dynamic contrasts between piano and forte with propulsive pulse were the hallmark of the last movement, with the principal horn shining out fanfare-like. Every detail of the concert had been executed with care and fine musicianship.