Last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts were marked by the jarring juxtaposition of two works which could hardly have been more disparate: a piano concerto by Salvatore Sciarrino completed earlier this year, compact and sparsely textured, and a cornerstone symphony by Anton Bruckner, sprawling and sumptuous. At the podium was guest conductor Fabio Luisi who presented both pieces with singular dedication and direction.

Jonathan Biss, Fabio Luisi and The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni
Jonathan Biss, Fabio Luisi and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni

The Sciarrino concerto was a product of Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven/5 project, in which the pianist has engaged five composers to each write a new piano concerto inspired by one of Beethoven’s five works in the medium. The other composers involved include Timo Andres, Sally Beamish, Caroline Shaw and Brett Dean; each new work is a co-commission of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra where Biss presented the première of Sciarrino’s entry this past September (in which it was paired with Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, the composer’s purported inspiration). The Cleveland performances marked the second hearing of this work, as well as the first time TCO has played even a note of Sciarrino.

In his spoken remarks, Biss explicated some of the concerto’s salient features, a helpful guide to a work that otherwise defied characterization. It opened with coarse pizzicatos in the strings, answered by flourishes in the piano’s upper register. Silence is as important as sound for Sciarrino, and what ensued felt almost disembodied and incorporeal, as if sounds were more suggested than executed. Occasional interjections in the winds punctuated, adding coloristic variety in the otherwise modest, chamber-sized orchestra.

The heart of the concerto was of striking contrast, a lush melody in the solo piano played atop ethereal harmonics in the strings, as if resting on the clouds. To make sense of this, one had to look to the work’s perplexing subtitle, Il sogno di Stradella. Though relegated to the footnotes of most music history textbooks, Baroque composer Alessandro Stradella was a remarkable innovator, and of note in the development of the concerto grosso, progenitor to this modern concerto. The titular dream was perhaps Stradella’s awareness of his own prescience, as Biss’ passage here was at turns Chopinesque and with echoes of Satie’s Gymnopédies.

The dream dissipated, and the following once again pushed the limits of audibility in a celebration of the sound of silence. Biss found himself with hands at opposite ends of the keyboard and matters faded away, only to be cut short by the sudden gesture that closed the work. As for the connection to Beethoven’s Fourth, both works have a propensity for subtlety and understatement, but there it seemed to me the similarities ended; in any case, Biss and his orchestral colleagues are to be commended for their unwavering commitment to unfamiliar territory.

Fabio Luisi and The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni
Fabio Luisi and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni

After a first half that lasted a mere fifteen minutes, audience and orchestra alike were primed for the hour-plus expanse of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major. The Cleveland Orchestra has a uniquely deep devotion to Bruckner for an American ensemble, encouraged in large part by Austrian music director Franz Welser-Möst. While Welser-Möst has championed texts that arguably better represent Bruckner’s intentions undiluted by others, Luisi opted for the more familiar Nowak edition. Beginning almost as quietly as the Sciarrino ended, a lambent horn solo from guest Carsten Duffin of the Bavarian Radio Symphony explored the most elemental of intervals, bringing to life what the composer himself described as a medieval city at dawn.

Matters were propelled inexorably forward by the so-called Bruckner rhythm of a duplet followed by a triplet, and the massive weight of the climaxes were given without bombast. The shining brass chorales resounded like a cathedral organ, while a searching flute solo from Joshua Smith was a moment of introspection before the movement’s blazing conclusion. As a soloist, Duffin proved to be somewhat unpredictable, delivering passages ranging from the rarefied and gleaming to the fitfully flubbed.

Funereal pulsing accompanied Frank Rosenwein’s melancholy oboe solo in the Andante, the texture especially rich in the long-bowed strings. Hunting calls were rallied for the scherzo, again gaining momentum via the Bruckner rhythm. The athletic vigor was countered by the trio, a relaxed Ländler highlighted by fine solos from Smith and clarinetist Afendi Yusuf. Uneasy recollections of the work’s beginning opened the finale, with all movements obliquely recalled in due course, as Beethoven did in the finale of his last symphony. Discursive as this movement might be, Luisi maintained a clear vision of the path towards the end, a glorious and transcendent final statement.