The works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Beethoven, Jan Křtitel Vaňhal, and Haydn on this weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts were all composed in a period from the 1760s (Vanhal) to the mid-1790s (Beethoven and Haydn), with C.P.E. Bach in the mid-1770s. The concert was the orchestra’s nod to the 300th birth anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s fifth child and second surviving son. The program helped to put into context the rapidly changing musical styles that overtook the Baroque style, in which both drama and rhetorical gesture were in play alongside the more genteel rococo style from which the Classical style of Mozart and Haydn emerged with Beethoven – with his daring use of form and tonality – being the transition from Classical to early Romantic. Such changes in the space of forty years! Yet two masterpieces from the period were on this program, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major, Op.15, and Haydn’s Symphony no. 103 in E flat major “Drumroll”.

Imogen Cooper © Benjamin Ealovega
Imogen Cooper
© Benjamin Ealovega

Two distinguished British musicians were making overdue Cleveland Orchestra debuts. Guest conductor Jane Glover, long known as a specialist in Mozart and other composers of this era, and piano soloist Imogen Cooper, renowned for her performances of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, were ideal exponents for the repertoire and a good match for the musical sensibilities of The Cleveland Orchestra. The performances were marked by elegance and refinement, with drama when called for, and without condescension or fussiness.

CPE Bach’s Sinfonia no. 2 in E flat major, Wq183/2, is in three movements; however, the first movement is elided into the brief second movement, only a few phrases long, which itself moves directly to the third movement. The work harkens back to the Baroque with its use of harpsichord continuo supporting the chamber-size orchestra. Sharply dotted rhythms in the third movement stood side-by-side sustained lyrical passages. The first and second movement eschewed the classical sonata form, with musical exposition, development of the material, ending with a recapitulation of the first material; only the third movement made recognizable use of the form. The performance was lively and spot-on stylistically.

This was a program that would have benefited from a chronological performance of the works; had that been the case, Beethoven’s first piano concerto would have closed the concert and stood out as avant-garde, with its far greater development of musical material and brilliant use of tonal structures and shifting harmonies for formal effect. Imogen Cooper did not make a misstep in her performance, which ranged from the most subtle musical voicing of phrases to thunderous passages. The lengthy first movement cadenza was especially brilliant in its enunciation of Beethoven’s harmonic ideas combined with virtuoso pianism. In this performance, Ms. Cooper and Ms. Glover certainly espoused the concept of Beethoven as emerging Romantic, but not quite having left the Classical era behind. Although Imogen Cooper has made many recordings, the Beethoven concertos do not appear to be among them (or at least not currently available), which is a shame, because this was a performance worth repeated listening.

The second part of the program contained two contrasting orchestral works, beginning with the Sinfonia in G minor, BG1, by Czech composer Jan Křtitel Vaňhal (often known as Johann Baptist Wanhal), whose long life spanned the end of the Baroque, the Classical era and the early Romantic. He was prolific, turning out reams of chamber works, symphonies and sonatas. His works were extraordinarily popular in his lifetime and still get revived occasionally. This four movement Sinfonia is a typical example of well-crafted, enjoyable music but without the genius of his contemporaries Mozart and Haydn. The highlight of this work was the lovely second movement, which featured concerto-like solos from the violin and viola, well-played here by violinist Peter Otto and violist Lynne Ramsey. Sometimes the soloists alternated phrases; other times as a duo. The second movement made the rest of the note-spinning worthwhile.

Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony – so-called because of the long timpani roll that opens the first movement – was the next-to-last of twelve symphonies he wrote for first performance in London, which took place in 1795. Cleveland Orchestra soloists had moments to shine in the four movements, particularly again Peter Otto’s violin in a florid solo that makes up one of the variations in the second movement. The minuet third movement was rustic good fun, with the trio section sounding almost like the tune a music box with its clarinet melody. This concert revived some unusual repertoire that deserves more exposure; Jane Glover and The Cleveland Orchestra made a compelling case for it.