After the month of December spent playing holiday concerts and other special events, followed by a few weeks of well-deserved vacation, the Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst were back in subscription concert mode this past weekend with four programs featuring the works of Johannes Brahms. These were the first in a multi-year series that will include the symphonies and the major concertos. It is planned that the performances will be recorded for television broadcast and eventual DVD/Blu-Ray release.

Julia Fischer © Kasskara
Julia Fischer
© Kasskara

It is unusual for the orchestra to perform two sets of repertoire in a single weekend concert set. In this case, Julia Fischer was soloist in Brahms' violin concerto for all four performances; on the Thursday and Friday concerts (which were video-recorded) the orchestra also played the Academic Festival Overture and the Symphony No. 4 in E minor. On Saturday evening (upon which this report is based) and Sunday afternoon the concert opened with the Tragic Overture and closed with the Symphony No. 2 in D major. The Saturday concert showed the Cleveland Orchestra in top form.

In response to receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau, Brahms composed in 1880 a pair of overtures as a gift to the university, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tragic Overture. Although the Tragic Overture is in a minor key, its character is hardly tragic or melancholy. After the two accented opening chords, the abundant melodies flow. The material is developed variously, and toward the end, as things seem to be winding down to an introspective close, Brahms revs up the orchestral engine for a big ending. Welser-Möst and the orchestra showed a clear sense of line and phrasing, with ample rubato and flexibility of the musical pulse.

Julia Fischer is considered one of the great violin virtuosos of our time, and she did not disappoint in Brahms' beloved and difficult concerto. Fischer is not an especially showy player; she doesn't fling herself around the stage. Rather she appears serenely involved in her performance, which showed a big yet lyrical sound and complete control over the technical requirements of the concerto. Just a few examples of the musical magic were the utter calm after the first movement cadenza, when time seemed for a moment to be standing still, before the intensity builds to the end of the movement. The second movement oboe solo was effectively played by principal oboist Frank Rosenwein, earning him a solo bow at the end. The third movement was a boisterous romp. I am one who is critical of the routine standing ovations that have taken over concert halls; but in this the audience leaping to its feat at the end of the concerto was well-justified, as were the several rounds of curtain calls.

In a rare exception to Severance Hall protocol, Julia Fischer played an astonishing encore, the third movement of Paul Hindemith's Sonata in G Minor. The piece was a cascade of arpeggios, scales, trills and the most outlandish display of violin technique that is likely to be heard in Cleveland this season.

After struggling to write his first symphony for over twenty years and finishing in 1876, the inspiration for the second flowed freely and was finished in 1877, followed in short order by the third and fourth symphonies, the last being completed in 1885. The Cleveland Orchestra's performance of the Second Symphony on this concert was excellent. Franz Welser-Möst emphasized dramatic contrasts, yet there were important moments of introspection. The second movement opening passages with the noble cello melody were arresting, full of yearning. The final movement was triumphantly joyful, and the closing fanfares again brought the audience to their feet.

The return of the orchestra to Severance Hall for the Winter and Spring schedule is welcome. There was disappointing news the week before, however. The great French maestro Pierre Boulez has again for the third time in recent years had to withdraw from scheduled concerts in February due to health issues. Hope grows ever more dim that we may again hear from this great musician who has developed such a rapport with the Cleveland Orchestra over the past half century.

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