The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2013/14 Severance Hall season came to a rousing finish this weekend with three works from the first half of the 20th century. Violinist Janine Jansen had been scheduled as the soloist in Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto; however, she was indisposed. Remarkably, the orchestra was able to secure on short notice the services of Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma to play the scheduled Britten work, and who, along with guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski, made her Cleveland Orchestra debut in these concerts. Lamsma made a brilliant first impression in Britten’s challenging, and rarely performed, 1939 concerto.

Simone Lamsma © Otto van den Toorn
Simone Lamsma
© Otto van den Toorn

Britten completed his Violin Concerto in Quebec, during the early part of his three-year sojourn with his partner, Peter Pears, in North America. No less ensemble than the New York Philharmonic and then music director John Barbirolli gave the première with Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa at Carnegie Hall in 1940. Compared to other violin concertos of the 1930s, including Korngold and Barber, Britten’s has languished in relative obscurity. It is every bit as virtuosic a showpiece as the others, requiring extraordinary technical prowess, as well as a sense of long musical line. But Britten’s work is more austere, without the Romantic melodies of Korngold or Barber. The musical techniques and orchestration (for example, the unusual duet of piccolo and tuba in the second movement, and the use of the passacaglia form to organize the third movement) continued to appear in Britten works to the end of his life. The opening timpani melodic and rhythmic pattern reappears as a motif throughout the work, in three movements, but performed without pause.

There are many lyrical moments in the concerto, but there is an overall feeling of melancholy. The second movement scherzo is fiendish, building to a mighty climax, then abruptly stopping for an extended violin cadenza, which Simone Lamsma dispatched with not only technical brilliance, but a beautiful sense of musical poise. The third movement passacaglia is based on a series of scale passages, with the violin soloist wending her way through a freely developed line above the structure. Later, the music becomes a gracious waltz, leading to a climactic passage with the soloist playing torrents of notes. The conclusion of the concerto is serene, but disquieting, seeming without true resolution and ending on the interval of an open fifth. Vladimir Jurowski and the Cleveland Orchestra were sensitive partners to Lamsma’s solo work. This was the concerto’s first performance in Cleveland, and Jurowski seemed to acknowledge that fact by elevating his conducting score above his head during the lengthy curtain calls.

The concert opened with Igor Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, written in 1907-08, before The Firebird and Le Sacre du printemps, which sealed Stravinsky’s reputation forever. This ten-minute work is derivative of others (Mendelssohn and Rimsky-Korsakov) but the imagination of his later works is clearly already present. The orchestration is Mendelssohnian in its lightness and feature of fleet upper strings and winds. Although the orchestra required is not particularly large, there is luxury orchestration of three harps and an extensive celesta part creating an ethereal mood. Jurowski is of the “less is more” school of conducting, with minimal movement on the podium, small gestures with the baton and efficient cues to the orchestra. Even in the most climactic passages, there was no grandiosity, yet he seemed able to communicate his musical ideas to the orchestra, who responded with their usual playing of clarity and brilliance.

The second half of the program consisted of a substantial set of excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s 1944 ballet Cinderella. The movements were judiciously chosen to illustrate the fairy tale. The scenario was printed in the program booklet; it was also projected as supertitles above the stage, which was helpful, because Prokofiev’s music closely illustrates the story line. The characters of the stepmother and two stepsisters (Skinny and Dumpy) and even the Prince are treated satirically. Many of the ballet’s movements are parodistic of 18th century dance music: minuets, mazurkas and the like. The mostly diatonic lyrical Adagio that forms the duet between Cinderella and the Prince built to a glorious climax. The most dazzling musical moment came at the end of the ballet’s second act, when the clock strikes midnight, with percussionists galore banging on various steel items and the rest of the orchestra pealing out searing reminiscences of a clock that has gone mad. The ballet ends in glorious musical representation of “happily ever after”. Jurowski and the Cleveland Orchestra gave an arresting performance of the work, emphasizing in equal measure irony, satire and lyricism. It brought the 2013/14 season to a memorable close.

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