The music-making was top-notch for the final Summers at Severance concert for 2018 on Friday evening. Jonathan Cohen, director of the early music ensemble Arcangelo, conducted from the harpsichord Handel’s overture to The Occasional Oratorio and Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 in G minor, K183, and led Haydn’s Piano Concerto no. 11 in D major with South African pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout as soloist. The Cleveland Orchestra was reduced to chamber orchestra size, and rarely have I heard them play such convincing historically informed performances. Although they were clearly playing modern instruments, the sounds and textures were even tighter than one expects from this exemplary ensemble.

Kristian Bezuidenhout © Marco Borggreve
Kristian Bezuidenhout
© Marco Borggreve

The overture to The Occasional Oratorio is in three parts: a French overture opening movement, followed by a short slow movement featuring an oboe solo (sensitively played by principal Frank Rosenwein) and ending with a boisterous march. The double-dotted rhythms of the opening section were sharply etched, with minimal string vibrato; the fugal passages that followed were precise. There might have been additional ornamentation in various places, but the ornaments present were tasteful and practical. The three trumpets were a blaze of glory.

Bezuidenhout is especially well-regarded for his performances on fortepiano and harpsichord. For his Cleveland Orchestra debut, he played a modern Steinway in Haydn’s concerto. It was a remarkable performance in its clarity and lightness of touch. It was not as if Bezuidenhout was trying to hide his modern instrument, but the piano sound was scaled back to match the textures of the modern instruments in the chamber orchestra. Phrasing and passagework were immaculate, the musical line subtly shaped. The Hungarian-influenced third movement, with its leaps, grace notes and trills might have sounded coarse, but here it was graceful and elegant.

For the Mozart symphony, Cohen again led from the harpsichord. A gesture or pointed finger or a look and a nod supplemented the innate musicianship of the orchestral players to listen to what was happening in the music. Since The Cleveland Orchestra is known to often operate as a very large chamber ensemble, this sort of performance is built into their skill set. Mozart’s use of four horns added richness to the texture. The music was lithe; the sounds were clear. Although the use of harpsichord as a continuo instrument is historically justified, it was mostly inaudible from the auditorium, simply overbalanced by the modern strings, winds and brass. Only in the quiet passages of the second movement did the it peek through. A fortepiano would also be a historically correct choice with slightly more volume and is a viable alternative. But this is a small quibble to lodge against a beautifully conceived and executed program. Cohen and Bezuidenhout should both be invited back for more.