The Cleveland Orchestra is back in Cleveland this week, settled into the next segment of their subscription season with three works composed in the 1930s and ‘40s, but each remarkably different from the others. Gianandrea Noseda, former chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, led luminous performances of Petrassi and Rachmaninov and – especially – a brilliant Shostakovich Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor with Leonidas Kavakos.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve
Goffredo Petrassi was among a group of Italian composers, including Alfred Casella, Ildebrando Pizzetti and Gian Francesco Malipiero, all active between the two world wars, who leaned in modernist directions. Another of their number, Ottorino Respighi, mined the last remnants of Italian romanticism. How is it that Petrassi and the others, fell into the shadows? Noseda and The Cleveland Orchestra gave the Cleveland Orchestra première of Petrassi’s Partita for Orchestra at this concert to excellent effect.

The Partita has the marks of its time, an “urban”, jazzy feel, with both soprano and alto saxophones and piano figuring prominently in the orchestration. The harmonies are tonally murky, but the chromaticism leans more in the direction of Paul Hindemith than the Austrian versions of early Schoenberg and Berg. The three movements are titled with dance forms that were Baroque favorites: Gagliarda, Ciacona, and Giga. The “Gagliarda” was march-like, with bracing chords and jazz influence. There is no percussion in the orchestration, but the virtuoso piano part, played by Joela Jones, provides definition to the orchestral texture. The “Ciacona” is a set of variations, as the title would imply, mostly in dark orchestral colors, arranged in unusual ways: double basses and clarinets in unison octaves; a quartet of solo cellos; a creepy passage of slithering violins; dissonant brass fanfares, finally ending in bass opaqueness. Noseda managed to distinguish all of these colors so they never became an orchestral porridge. The “Giga” was perpetual motion, punctuated by piano chords, a swirl of orchestral color that suddenly vanishes into thin air. Petrassi’s Partita seems undeservedly neglected; The Cleveland Orchestra made a strong case for its revival.

Leonidas Kavakos has performed several times in Cleveland, combining fine technique with highly cultivated musicianship. Kavakos’s performance of Dmitri Shostokovich’s bleak Violin Concerto No. 1, in A minor, composed during the Stalin regime, but suppressed until the 1950s after the dictator’s death, again had these qualities of poetry and technical fire. 

The concerto opens with a “Nocturne” in dark orchestral colors, and a long, mournful violin solo, combining long melodic lines with tortured leaps. The dynamic is mostly piano and pianissimo. There are haunting notes in the celesta, with a quiet stroke on a gong. Kavakos maintained this air of mystery throughout.

If the first movement was serene, the second movement “Scherzo” was fiery, extroverted and satirical, with excellent work from the orchestra’s wind section. Beginning in the triple meter of a traditional scherzo, at midstream Shostakovich suddenly switches to duple meter replicating a circus polka, but later, just as unexpectedly switches back to triple meter for a ferocious ending. The soloist plays sometimes in the style of a Jewish klezmer musician, but always with a tinge of dread.

The third movement “Passacaglia” is, like the “Ciacona” in the Petrassi work, a set of variations on a bass theme. The solo violin entrance is a melody of lyrical brilliance, played by Kavakos with ravishing beauty. The tension and density of the movement grows and ends in a mood of desolation.

A long solo violin cadenza separates the third and fourth movements. Leonidas Kavakos captured every mercurial nuance. The cadenza picks up momentum, and suddenly the orchestra enters in a frantic dance, in which the Passacaglia theme returns along with the Jewish musical elements heard previously, bringing this troubling concerto masterpiece to a close.

Standing ovations are a mundane fact of concert-going, but this one for Kavakos and Noseda was richly deserved, with normally staid orchestra members themselves applauding the violinist. Kavakos played the Andante from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003, as an encore, slowly and introspectively, almost without vibrato, the audience in rapt silence.

After the austerity of the first two works, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances were a burst of melodic color. Noseda led a vividly detailed, lively performance. The first movement, with its pervasive theme based on a descending minor triad, was driving and rhythmic, but with stretches of serenity, especially the mournful saxophone solo, beautifully played by Jeffrey Zehngut, who normally plays second violin in the orchestra. The recapitulation of the opening material was even more forceful in its return. The second movement was a “Ravel-esque” waltz of swirling color. The third movement emphasized rhythm more than melody, until the Gregorian Dies irae chant takes over the thematic material. Noseda built Rachmaninov’s climax to a tremendous fury to end the concert.