Italian Fabio Luisi is likely best known to American listeners as the conductor who led the last two operas of the Met's Robert LePage Ring cycle to a successful musical conclusion, filling in for an indisposed James Levine. He has conducted not just Wagner at the Met, but several other operas, including riveting performances of Berg's Lulu and he is successor to Franz Welser-Möst as music director of Zurich Opera. His appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra since 2011 have been consistently fine, and this week's was no exception.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet © IMG Artists
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© IMG Artists

The concert opened with Luca Francesconi's Cobalt, Scarlet: Two Colors of Dawn. This was the Cleveland Orchestra's first performance of Francesconi's music. The program note indicated that Francesconi did not intend for it to be a tone poem or have any particular programmatic content. It was certainly not in the mode of, for instance, the "Sunrise" movement of Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite. Lasting almost 25 minutes, Francesconi's work had a recognizable structure alternating sections of soft, hovering, cloudlike clusters of sound in a variety of timbres with passages of propulsive, brutal rhythms. The dynamic and textural range was from the most quiet single notes on the glockenspiel to ear-splitting masses of the greatest complexity. The shadows of Ligeti and Stravinsky were never far away. The composer was at one time was Luciano Berio's assistant and Berio's internal polyphonic layering of individual strands of melody to create chameleon-like harmonic structures was also evident. The large percussion section was arrayed around the perimeter of the orchestra, and there were "echoing" effects that appeared at several moments.

There were many arresting moments in Cobalt, Scarlet, but I was not convinced about the length of the work. It is true that the musical materials evolved over the course of the piece, but Francesconi could have made an equally strong musical case in less time. Fabio Luisi conducted with authority; the Cleveland Orchestra performed with unflagging commitment. 

After the austere modernism of Francesconi's work, the Romantic tonality of Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major had a cleansing freshness. This was a performance that balanced poise with requisite virtuosity. Soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Fabio Luisi were as one in their sense of lyricism and the ebb and flow of tempo. This attention to musical flexibility was the hallmark of the six short sections comprising the concerto's one movement. Indeed, Thibaudet seems to have an intuitive sense of the style of Liszt's music, creating a performance seemed natural and never forced. At times Thibaudet was subsumed into the orchestral texture, as in the filigree accompanying a horn solo. His seemingly boundless technique allows for thundering cascading chords matching the orchestra's fortissimo dynamic; at other times, Thibaudet played with quicksilver lightness. The prominent cello solo, played by principal Mark Kosower, was exquisite, paired with Thibaudet's accompaniment.

After intermission, Luisi returned with more A major in Beethoven's Symphony no. 7.  Although the symphony was premiered at a patriotic charity benefit for veterans in 1813, there is nothing especially patriotic about the music. Rather it seems more an outgrowth of the symphonic developments that Beethoven had made in the Fifth Symphony and the charm of the Sixth. The introduction of the first movement had nicely turned phrases and lovely clarity of texture; the main Vivace was quite jolly, dramatic but still elegant. Luisi didn't allow even a moment of breath after the first movement, with a segue directly from the first to the second movement variations on a repeated bass figure. In a concert that had some very loud music, there were moments at the beginning of the second movement of gorgeous stillness. The third movement scherzo had an Italianate delicacy; it seemed almost a precursor to Mendelssohn's famous scherzi. The trio was serene, with an appropriate sense of gravity. After the introductory chords of the last movement, Luisi launched into an astonishingly fast tempo, which would have soon been a shambles in a lesser orchestra. But Luisi and the Clevelanders made a thrilling success of it, never letting the tension and excitement lag. To borrow John Adams's title, it was a "short ride on a fast machine" and a thrilling conclusion to an evening at Severance Hall.