German conductor Marc Albrecht made a shaky debut with the Cleveland Orchestra on Thursday night, kicking off a series of three concerts with uneven renditions of two familiar Mahler works and a lively but jagged treatment of Schoenberg's orchestral version of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor Op.25. While the program had its moments, it was a surprisingly lackluster performance, particularly in light of Albrecht’s success with European orchestras and his affinity for the 20th century repertoire.

Marc Albrecht © Marco Borggreve
Marc Albrecht
© Marco Borggreve

Currently chief conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Netherlands Opera, Albrecht made his reputation in the orchestra pits of the Hamburg State Opera, Staatstheater Darmstadt and Deutsche Oper Berlin. His style is well-suited to the stage, with grand, dramatic gestures and vivid colors in the music. Details tended to wax and wane, though, in what should have been his strength – accompanying mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) – singer and conductor seemed to be out of synch.

The evening opened with Mahler’s Blumine, the “leftover” movement from the composer’s First Symphony. Albrecht’s interpretation was straightforward but lacked clarity, sounding like a solid, uninspired wall of sound. Especially taken out of its original symphonic context, Blumine is not very expressive and needs sharpening and verve. An apparent timing miscue in the opening trumpet cantilena seemed to throw the piece off slightly, and it never developed any texture or depth.

Albrecht got off to a better start with the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, providing bright, buoyant accompaniment for Cooke. There was a lot more detail in the sound, which sparkled at times, although it would fly open widely before coming back to a tight focus. The inconsistent approach seemed uncomfortable for the musicians, who had to constantly adjust and seemed comparatively stiff in their playing.

It may also have affected Cooke, who was not always on top of her breathing, which is unusual because, typically, she shows superb control. She has a great feel for the work of not only Mahler, but late 20th century composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass. Her expertise was clear in her rich lower register for the first two songs, a powerful dramatic flair in “Ich hab’ein glühend Messer” and the high, delicate lines of “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz”. Cooke drew enthusiastic applause from the audience, as well as the members of the orchestra.

The Brahms quartet sounds far from a chamber work in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 transcription, which in performance looks like an exercise in using every single instrument in the large orchestra. Indeed, when asked why he undertook the task, Schoenberg said, “It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.” In this respect, Albrecht succeeded too, individual instruments and sections coming to the fore in carefully drawn sections, with the conductor finally taking advantage of the Cleveland Orchestra’s silken strings, vibrant horns and woodwinds, and precision percussion. All four movements brimmed with color and drama, building to a fast-paced finish of aural fireworks. The energy was infectious and the sprawling dimensions of the work were fascinating.

However, it sounded hollow, all surface gloss and dazzle without a tight central core, powerful in the dramatic swells that Albrecht favors, but anemic in the more thoughtful passages, particularly in the second movement. The dark tones of the third movement just never arrived. Technically the piece suffered as well, with rough edges instead of clean, sharp lines in the Rondo alla Zingarese final movement, and passages throughout where different sections of the orchestra seemed to collide into each other instead of meshing. In the whirlwind finish, the sound nearly tripped over itself.

Known as “the most European of American orchestras,” Cleveland’s stellar ensemble is usually at its most interesting when a European conductor comes to town. But this was more a case of the orchestra maintaining its standards despite, not because of, a visiting maestro. Even allowing for a first-time collaboration, it was a disappointment.