The temperature outside Severance Hall was not much above 0° F (-17° C) on Thursday evening, and until a few moments before The Cleveland Orchestra's concert began, the audience was quite slim. But in those last few minutes, the hall filled, and those who stayed away missed important debuts by guest conductor Juanjo Mena, chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, and the brilliant young Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova. There were three big works on the program and conductor, soloist and orchestra were a good match for all of them.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel

The first half of the program was devoted to Sibelius' Symphony no. 7 in C major and his Violin Concerto in D minor. There was a vivid contrast between the late (and final) symphony and the virtuosity of the concerto, yet both were unmistakably Sibelian with his hallmark “Nordic” sounds of shimmering openness.

With a quiet timpani roll and an odd rising scale, the opening of Sibelius's Seventh Symphony in one movement is somber, but soon gives way to a yearning, lyrical sweetness. Both moods characterize the symphony, in sharply contrasting emotions. Dark-sounding wind passages are pierced by a noble solo trombone melody. Quick chromatic string passages give the impression of howling winds. Later the trombone melody returns as part of brilliant brass chorales, with a crescendo to full orchestra. Although the symphony is in C major, Sibelius never lingers around that tonal area. After considerable development and chromaticism, C major does finally return at the end, with the violins in a long-held dissonance that finally resolves upward to a final short C major chord, and then the symphony is over, unexpectedly vanishing. In this performance close attention was paid to dynamics, from almost inaudible string murmurings to thrilling fortissimo brass passages. Details of the orchestration were brought out and the tempi were never extreme.

The same virtues were found in the performance of the Violin Concerto. Alina Ibragimova was an ideal soloist. She was self-assured and in command of the extreme technical demands of the concerto, with its multiple extended cadenzas. Her performance was at times insistent and assertive, yet she also had a beautiful sense of the many poetic passages of the piece. There were many breathtakingly lyrical pianissimo moments. Her refined musicianship dissolved the acrobatics and directed the listener's attention to the musical line behind it. The second movement Adagio was both melodic and passionate – the ultimate in romanticism. The third movement was quick, but not unreasonably fast. Sibelius' orchestrations never allow the soloist to be covered by the orchestral texture. The finale was exhilarating, and there was a yelling and whistling ovation at its conclusion.

In response, Alina Ibragimova offered a solo encore, the Sarabande from Johann Sebastian Bach's solo Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. Ibragimova performed it with a nod to historically-informed Baroque style, eschewing most vibrato and with precise ornamentation, while emphasizing Bach's harmonies.

Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande created a sensation when it was first staged in 1893. The story of doomed love between its title characters and the mystery surrounding their relationship captured the imagination of several composers, most notably Claude Debussy, whose 1902 operatic setting of Maeterlinck's play is one of western music's masterpieces. But Sibelius, Gabriel Fauré and Arnold Schoenberg also composed orchestral works inspired by the play. Schoenberg also contemplated an opera, but dropped the idea when he became aware of Debussy's impressionist work. Instead, in 1902-03 he composed a 40 minute tone poem for extremely large orchestra, a last gasp of Germanic romantic chromaticism, with tonality teetering on the edge of atonality. Indeed Schoenberg would abandon tonality only a few years later, turning him (for many listeners) into a pariah of 20th century modernism. Debussy's opera avoided romantic passion; Schoenberg reveled in it, extending the passion of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde to an extreme.

Schoenberg's scenario for the tone poem follows that of the play, and the musical elements reflect the drama: motifs for Fate and the principal characters Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud (Pelléas's half-brother and Mélisande's husband). The work is structured as a four-movement symphony played without pause, with a scherzo in second place and the slow movement following. Juanjo Mena had a firm grasp of the overall architecture of the work, a great challenge due to its length and the complexity of its musical language. The work is exhausting to listen to, with its very heavy orchestration, chromatic slithering and never a sense of a tonal landing spot. Everything is unsettled from beginning to end. This was a compelling performance, commanding attention and moving the drama along to its inevitable tragic conclusion, the death of Mélisande and never resolving the true nature of her relationship with Pelléas. This performance made a strong case for Scheonberg's early masterpiece.