The first three episodes of The Cleveland Orchestra’s In Focus series, all with music director Franz Welser-Möst at the helm, were filmed during consecutive weeks in October, and subsequently made available for viewing at two-week intervals. Much like the previous installment, Episode 3 juxtaposed a classical era piece with a score from the 20th-century, offering maximal contrast in an abbreviated program.

Franz Welser-Möst and Emanuel Ax
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
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Along with Yefim Bronfman, who appeared on Episode 2, Emanuel Ax is one of the most dependable pianistic presences on the Severance Hall stage – and a debt of gratitude is owed to both for their unwavering devotion to TCO even in time of pandemic. A brief interview with Ax and Cleveland Orchestra cellist Martha Baldwin opened the episode, and he noted this to be among his first regular performances since March – notwithstanding a concert series undertaken with Yo-Yo Ma last summer wherein a flatbed truck was repurposed as a makeshift stage!

Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto no. 11 in D major calls for a pair of oboes and horns, but can be played with strings alone, an alternative embraced at present owing to Covid restrictions. A light, limpid theme opened in the airy strings, setting the stage for Ax’s elegant entry on the keyboard. His characteristically crystalline playing was perfectly tailored to Haydn’s refined economy. Shades of minor provided some varied hues, and a brief cadenza put Ax’s technique on full display with one’s interest further heightened by the cinematographer’s mesmerizing close-ups of the pianist’s hands. 

Emanuel Ax, Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

A delicate calmness marked the central Un poco adagio, countering the effervescence of the two movements that flanked it. The finale was given with buoyancy and abandon by all, and for added color, here Haydn turned to Hungary for musical inspiration, effectively spiking Viennese classicism with a generous helping of paprika. Music of great fun, and certainly emblematic of the composer’s knack for witty finales.

While the first selection came from an outsider appropriating Hungarian musical tropes, the balance of the program turned to the pen of an echt-Hungarian in Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings. An energetic opening movement saw the orchestra negotiate time signatures in nearly constant flux with exacting precision. Thorny dissonances abounded, but this was an essay generally lyrical at heart, and various subsets of string players allowed the ensemble’s trademark chamber-like approach to shine. The slow movement was distilled and forlorn, capitalizing on the somber resonance of the strings, in due course building to a clangorous climax. Notwithstanding some prickly passages and a fiery cadenza from concertmaster Peter Otto, the finale showed Bartók at his most chipper and folksy.

This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream