Many fine solo instrumentalists and vocalists appear on the stage of Severance Hall with The Cleveland Orchestra, but occasionally there is one who stands above the usual excellence. Such was the case on Thursday when English baritone Sir Simon Keenlyside sang eight rarely performed songs by Jean Sibelius in orchestral arrangements – mostly by others – from the original voice and piano. The texts were in Finnish, Swedish and German, including a beautiful setting of Shakespeare’s “Come Away Death” translated into Swedish as “Kim nu hit, död”. The mood was subdued, in a declamatory vocal style, often with sustained string chords, colored with the sound of the harp. In the first of two different settings of poems by Richard Dehmel, “Aus banger Brust” ("From an Anxious Heart" Op. 50, no. 4) was erotically surreal in its references to nighttime lovemaking, with turbulent and constantly changing harmonies and a wickedly virtuosic solo violin obbligato competing against the soloist and remaining orchestra.

Sir Simon Keenlyside, Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni | courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Keenlyside seemed comfortably fluent singing in the three languages. His voice was full and rich, with brilliant high notes above the staff, soaring effortlessly over sometimes dense orchestrations. Franz Welser-Möst was a sympathetic accompanist, attuned to Keenlyside’s phrasing and breathing. This was a rare, perhaps risky, offering for The Cleveland Orchestra, exploring repertoire out of the standard string and piano concertos heard more often than not. But here’s to more risks in the future!

The concert opened with three well-known excerpts from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt incidental music, Op. 23, originally to accompany Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem of the same title. “Morning Mood” was played at a very brisk tempo, making it almost impossible for the string players to manage the ornaments on notes within the phrases. Nonetheless, there was a freshness and lucidity to the playing, with the familiar melody depicting a Norwegian dawn (despite the poem’s action for this music being set in Morocco). “The Death of Åse”, with its somber, slow-moving chords, was especially impressive for the ensemble’s legato, with a continuing diminuendo to the movement’s very soft, desolate end. The third movement played here, “At the Wedding,” was composed as the prelude to the play. It was tuneful, sharply accented, joyful. Clarinetist Daniel McKelway was impressive in the solo in the center of the movement; likewise, principal viola Wesley Collins gave a convincing impression from offstage of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.

Richard Strauss’s Aus Italien (From Italy), Op. 16, was written in 1886 when the composer was 22. In its four movements and 45-minute duration, it is deeply indebted to Richard Wagner music; it is not on par with the symphonic poems that would follow a few years later – Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldenleben, let alone the fiercely original operas Salomé and Elektra. But there are glimmers of Strauss’s later genius of orchestration – for example, the beautiful string, harp and wind writing depicting lapping waves in the third movement – and being able to tell a story through music. The fourth movement fantasia on the 1880s Neapolitan popular song "Funiculì, funiculà” is a riot of color and activity.

Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra gave Aus Italien a rousing and brilliant performance, perhaps better than the piece deserved. There was detailed wind playing, with many incidental solos along the way; the brass were commanding at the big climaxes. Overall, the playing was close to faultless, but in the end, was the effort on this youthful work worth it? Perhaps as a curiosity, but I’m not anxious to hear it again soon.