There are few guest conductors who have as much inside information as to how The Cleveland Orchestra works as Jahja Ling. He was a member of the orchestra's conducting staff from 1984 to 2005, and he served as the Blossom Festival Director from 2000-05. He is now the music director of the San Diego Symphony, but he makes annual guest appearances in Cleveland, where he is a local favorite. His performances are not flashy, but they are solid, musical and enjoyable. For this weekend's concerts his soloists were a long-time musical associate, Michael Sachs, the orchestra's principal trumpet, and the rising piano star Daniil Trifonov, who also has a Cleveland connection from his study at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta

Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor, dates from 1933, right after the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the 24 piano preludes. Shostakovich himself played the solo part in the concerto's first performance. It is scored for string orchestra, solo piano and solo trumpet. The solo piano part, however, far dominates the trumpet solo, which doesn't have a great deal to do. It is in a neo-classical style patterned after Baroque keyboard concertos, although in an astringent harmonic style. The four short movements are performed attaca, one after another without significant pause. The concerto is optimistic and charming, even comic at times, especially in the fourth movement. Shostakovich was 27 when he composed the concerto, and, despite the growing repression of the Soviet era, the composer had not yet become embittered, channeling his rage against the Stalinist regime into the hidden messages of his later works.

Daniil Trifonov is a brilliant pianist, but he seemed to miscalculate his approach to this work. Shostakovich tries to delight and charm, but for much of the performance Trifonov tried too hard to turn it into something it is not: one of the great Rachmaninov or Prokofiev concertos. He played with steel-fingered virtuosity and, especially in the louder outer movements, piano tone that was hard-edged. The second movement is lyrically beautiful, and had the most effective moments here. It is a slow waltz, sparsely scored, with the piano often playing only in two voices, pianissimo. There is a brief piano cadenza and climax, but the texture quickly thins again for a reprise of the opening music, this time with the trumpet carrying the original melody in a low register. The piano continues the music for a very soft conclusion. Here Trifonov played with poetic serenity. The finale is a romp, almost like music for a silent film farce. The trumpet plays a folk-like melody, which is interrupted by a huge, dissonant piano chord. The tempo becomes much faster, with glissandi in the piano and repeated note fanfares in the solo trumpet. It all comes to an unexpected and abrupt halt. Michael Sachs is a very fine player; Shostakovich's concerto did not show his talents to their best, but there can be no complaint about his performance. It was top-notch.

After the jewel-like precision of the Shostakovich work, it was a pleasure to have a good Romantic wallow in all the great melodies of Rachmaninov's Symphony no. 2 in E minor. From the first low bass notes and yearning string passages, this was a satisfying performance. It was perhaps not the most precise reading ever given, but tempos were sensible, with flexibility of phrasing. The climaxes were suitably robust, and those passages topped with the silver tone of the glockenspiel never fail to bring a smile. The third movement clarinet solo, played by principal Franklin Cohen (who recently announced his intention to retire after a long tenure with The Cleveland Orchestra) was the epitome of Rachmaninov's melodic mastery. The majestic climax of the movement was a Technicolor moment, followed by fading away to an almost inaudible conclusion. If there was ever a composer who knew how to compose a climax, it was Rachmaninov, and the thrilling performance of fourth movement let the audience have their longed-for opportunity for a shouting, whistling ovation for Jahja Ling and the many orchestral soloists as he asked them to stand for solo bows.