Russian-born conductor Semyon Bychkov is lauded for his performances of Strauss and Wagner operas and other late Romantic works. That experience was on display in this week’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts. The orchestra, with its reputation for lithe and almost chamber-orchestra precision, sounded unusually warm and full in performances of music by Bruch and Smetana, as well as the US premiere of Detlev Glanert’s arresting 2013 work Weites Land: Music mit Brahms (Wide Open Land, Music with Brahms) the title of which was almost as evocative as the music itself.

Katia and Marielle Labèque © Weigold & Böhm
Katia and Marielle Labèque
© Weigold & Böhm

Glanert’s Wide Open Land was thoroughly Romantic in its rich orchestral textures, in a harmonic idiom that is often dissonant but still recognizably tonal, with hints of late Mahler, Berg, Henze, even Britten. In its ten minutes there are slithering string chordal passages, trumpet fanfares, battles between strings and brass and a quiet lyrical passage completely free of dissonance that is shocking in its serene unexpectedness. There are implications of Brahms throughout, but just hints and never wholesale quotations of the 19th-century master’s work such as Berio did with Mahler in his Sinfonia. TCO and Bychkov emphasized this contrast, and the music’s rough edges were smoothed out. Based on this alluring performance, I’d like to hear this piece again and more of Glanert’s work in the future. It’s worthy of greater exposure.

In the 34 years since their debut with The Cleveland Orchestra, Katia and Marielle Labèque have maintained pre-eminence in the admittedly not large circle of regular duo-piano teams. Besides commissioning new works, they have resurrected lesser-known gems from the past. Such was the case this week in the first Cleveland Orchestra performances of Max Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Op.88a, completed in 1915. It is an arrangement of – and shares an opus number with – an orchestral suite Bruch had written several years before he received a commission from two sisters from Baltimore who wanted a two-piano concerto.

The work is a thoroughly Romantic piano concerto, with big tunes and plenty of piano filigree to satisfy the most demanding fan. Bruch did take some shortcuts; in some places, melodic passages are simply divided between the two pianos, rather than adding more music to surround the pre-existing music. Katia and Marielle Labèque were commanding soloists, with tonal resources to match the robust orchestration. The ebb and flow of the music was well-judged by the orchestra, conductor, and soloists. Even if it’s not a timeless masterpiece, Bruch’s concerto fills a historical musical hole between Mozart and the 20th century. And with this quality of performance, it was fun to be along for the ride.

The Labèques played an encore, Le jardin féerique the last movement of Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye. Their performance was lyrically delicate, even in the crescendo leading to the end of the movement.

Each of the symphonic poems in Bedřich Smetana’s suite Má Vlast (My Homeland) was composed and premiered separately between 1874 and 1877, so Bychkov’s choice of the first three poems, Vyšehrad, Vltava and Šárka, was appropriate. Few composers (except, perhaps, Wagner at the beginning of Das Rheingold) have so completely captured the flow of of the River Vltava, with its tune that in later years has become almost a Czech anthem. The orchestral sound was velvety, with a natural flow as the movements progressed. It was exhilarating to hear these very familiar pieces sounding as if they had been rethought, with not a hint of routine.

****1