After a summer at the Blossom Music Center, it was good to have The Cleveland Orchestra back in its Severance Hall habitat for the opening on the 2013/14 concert season on Thursday evening. Guest conductor Fabio Luisi, principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and until recently chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, led soloist Hélène Grimaud in a stirring reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major (“Emperor”), as well as a nuanced and sophisticated performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major, with American soprano Maureen McKay in her Cleveland Orchestra debut.

Fabio Luisi © Barbara Luisi, BALU Photography
Fabio Luisi
© Barbara Luisi, BALU Photography

Although Fabio Luisi has wide symphonic experience, it is through his performances at the Met, especially taking over the notorious “Lepage Ring” from an injured James Levine, that has brought Mr Luisi to American audiences. In his second appearance with The Cleveland Orchestra – he made his debut in 2011 – he proved his ability to shape stylish and memorable performances of standard works, bringing clarity and detail not always heard.

For the Beethoven concerto, Mr Luisi used a full-sized orchestra, in a bold performance in the Romantic tradition. After the first movement’s long orchestral introduction, Ms Grimaud’s entrance was a muscular chordal outburst. The tempo was brisk, with Ms Grimaud seeming to push things along. During the movement there were times that soloist and orchestra seemed to be just barely together; one assumes that by the end of the three-concert run, these differences will be sorted out. The piano’s first entrance in the second movement, essentially a decorated scale, was magical, almost suspended in time, with sustained orchestral chords. The whole movement was of the utmost serenity and control. Even the transition from the slow second movement to the rondo of the third movement did not give away the secret until Ms Grimaud launched in tempo into the famous rondo theme.

As fine as the Beethoven concerto was, the Mahler symphony was even better. Mr Luisi brought a chamber music feel to the piece, reminding one of Pierre Boulez’s Mahler performances, but with much a much more romantic warmth to the sound. The orchestra was attuned to the many tempo changes and dynamic shifts throughout the symphony. Even in the most thunderous climaxes, such as that toward the end of the first movement, there was still a clarity of texture not always present in other performances. In the scherzo-like second movement, concertmaster William Preucil, with his re-tuned violin, took his solo role as the country village fiddler. All is not fun and games, and the music at times has a menacing quality. The serenity of the third movement’s opening led to a powerful climax and its resolution, with sudden, remarkable key changes.

The solo vocal part in the fourth movement is problematic. It is designated for soprano; however, much of it lies low for a typical soprano. It is perhaps best performed by a light, soprano-ish mezzo with the low notes but yet easily handling the higher phrases. (The young Frederica von Stade is one who made a success of it.) Maureen McKay has a fresh, clear soprano voice and is a lovely artist. She did run into trouble with the lower-lying passages, despite Mr Luisi’s attention to keeping the orchestra down. Still, though, she brought the essential child-like quality that is necessary in this setting of the Wunderhorn poem’s images of asparagus, French beans, St Luke slaying an ox, and St Cecilia’s choir of angelic voices.

There was a time in the not too distant past that opening night of The Cleveland Orchestra season would have been the hottest ticket in town and a highlight of the social season. That seems to be no longer the case; there were a considerable number of empty seats for the this performance. The audience, however, were loudly appreciative of the splendid music-making that came from the stage.

****1