There’s hardly a country that has provided more artistic inspiration than Italy, and Friday night’s Cleveland Orchestra program paired two symphonies by foreigners – one American, one German – that documented their respective composers’ travels through the country and its intoxicating effect. Conducting was Osmo Vänskä, longtime music director of the Minnesota Orchestra – a tenure that dates back just about as far as Franz Welser-Möst’s here in Cleveland. Both works programmed offered markedly different portraits of the country – over a century of musical development separates them – yet a common denominator remained in the obvious fondness for the geographic inspiration, evidenced not in the least by their impetus towards richly crafted melody.

Osmo Vänskä © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Osmo Vänskä
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Samuel Barber completed his Symphony in One Movement (retroactively referred to as Symphony no. 1 when the Second followed in 1944) while living in Rome, a residency brought about by his winning of the Rome Prize. Its approach to lyricism bears a more than passing Italianate influence, much like that in the contemporaneous Overture to The School for Scandal. The premiere took place in Rome in 1936, and the first American performance was given by The Cleveland Orchestra the following year.

As the full title suggests, the symphony was molded in a single paragraph, further subdivided into the four traditional movements skillfully interconnected (the program notes aptly suggested Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy as inspiration, along with the more recent model in Sibelius' Seventh Symphony). Bold beginnings were awash with an astringent lyricism, the appeal almost immediate, and Vänskä sculpted the work’s architecture with exacting care. The textures thinned and the mood lightened (comparatively, at least) for a de facto Scherzo, displaying the orchestra’s virtuosity at speed. The emotional crux of the work came in the Andante tranquillo with an oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein the focal point, achingly gorgeous and lush. Matters grew impassioned and grandiose, making way for a closing passacaglia that culminated in a muscular conclusion leaving an indelible impression – a real shame this isn’t a work encountered more often.

Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony was certainly the more obvious choice for the evening’s theme, a work written virtually in parallel with the composer’s other great travelogue symphony, the “Scottish”. The Allegro vivace was of bubbling joviality that fizzed with charm, a mood quite fitting as the summer season draws to a close. By the same token, the large orchestra didn’t shy away from adding weight in more dramatic moments, perhaps suggesting the work wasn’t all too distant from its more heavy-handed Scottish counterpart, and serving to heighten the contrast to the more featherlight passages. The two central movements were no less alluring, the silky Andante con moto in particular, while the dance inflections of the Con moto moderato flowed wholly untroubled. As for the closing saltarello, the orchestra delivered a fiery workout, and in spite of its firm shift to the minor, the music couldn’t possibly not have brought a smile to one’s face.