A large number of Clevelanders managed to tear themselves away from the post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” sales to fill Severance Hall to the brim for The Cleveland Orchestra concert on the evening of 23 November. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic, led tautly controlled and exciting performances, with Canadian pianist Louis Lortie as the soloist in Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor. The second half of the program was Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor. The concert was repeated on Saturday and Sunday, 24 and 25 November.

Louis Lortie © Elias
Louis Lortie
© Elias

That any conductor could bring new excitement to two such well-known and -loved pieces is remarkable, but Mr van Zweden took a fresh look at both Chopin and Rachmaninov. Mr Lortie was his brilliant accomplice in Chopin’s Second Concerto (actually the first piano concerto that Chopin composed, but misidentified by the publisher as the second). Dating from 1829–30, just before Chopin moved from his native Warsaw to Paris, the concerto exploits new technological advances of the piano, especially a brilliant upper range which would have been unknown a generation before. The piano soloist plays almost constantly, while the orchestra is consigned mostly to sustained chordal accompaniment, with the occasional orchestral interlude. There are large sections of the piano part that could stand on their own as solo works, especially the elegant Larghetto second movement. Mr Lortie’s sense of rubato brought out the essence of Chopin’s endless melodies and their subsequent filigree decoration, yet from his first entrance, Mr Lortie’s sound was muscular and full. The performers favored very brisk tempi, yet nothing seemed rushed. Instead, this performance brought to the fore Mr Lortie’s incredible technique and control over Chopin’s virtuosic technical demands – the scales, arpeggios and trills were unending, yet everything was perfectly in place. Mr van Zweden proved an excellent accompanist; he and Mr Lortie were fully in sync in their expression of Chopin’s rhythmic flexibility. The third movement, in triple meter and resembling a Polish mazurka, began with horn fanfares, setting off a torrent of piano virtuosity. Toward the end of the movement, horn fanfares signal a key-change to major, and Mr Lortie’s closing cascades brought down the house and earned the performers a well deserved ovation.

The scales that begin Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor quickly intertwine with each other and are continuously developed with surging crescendos and diminuendos. With this opening sequence, Mr van Zweden signaled that this was not going to be a ponderous, romantic performance; instead, this was was what might be described as a “Boulezian” performance, with tightly controlled tempi and lean, detailed orchestral textures, yet with a romantic ebb and flow of rhythm and dynamics. The music was propulsive, but then relaxed. The symphony has many opportunities for the splendid soloists in The Cleveland Orchestra, including concertmaster William Preucil and principal clarinet Franklin Cohen in the first movement. The sharp, agitated rhythm opening the second movement showed off the orchestra’s fine brass section; later in the movement the brass sustained the “chorale-like” music interspersed with fragments of the movement’s main theme in strings and winds. The music slithered away to silence.

The third movement and its famous tune were expansive, yet always moving ahead. Mr Cohen again shone in the movement’s long, sustained clarinet solo. Later, oboe and cor anglais soloists Jeffrey Rathbun and Robert Walters created a subtle dialogue. After a thrilling climax, the main theme was traded around among the wind soloists. The fourth movement brought back all of the great moments of the first three movements, at least momentarily. At each of Rachmaninov’s several climactic moments in the movement one thought that the orchestra couldn’t give more; yet the next seemed even more grand. Mr van Zweden’s strategy of keeping a tight rein on proceedings yet always pressing ahead paid off. This was a refreshing performance of an oft-played warhorse of a symphony.

During the closing curtain calls Jaap van Zweden acknowledged the many orchestral soloists, as well as the wind and brass sections for their own bows.