The first Cleveland Orchestra concert of the new decade was a sure sign of good things to come. Music director Franz Welser-Möst teamed with veteran collaborator Yefim Bronfman in a Mozart piano concerto, framed by substantive works from the Czech repertoire. The evening opened in unfamiliar territory with Dvořák’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor, which like its three predecessors has fallen into obscurity in the wake of the composer’s later, greater efforts – TCO has performed it only once before, and nearly four decades ago.

Yefim Bronfman, Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra
© © Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Mysterious tremolos opened, quickly dissipating to carve out an imposing minor key theme. The graceful and appealing secondary theme that answered was certainly a product of the late 19th-century milieu – in this work, one could sense Dvořák readily absorbing outside influences while nonetheless finding his own voice. The skillfully crafted development explored novel territory with a brassy fury, and the orchestra gave the work the same reverent care as its more distinguished successors, although I found Welser-Möst’s tempo a tad rushed as perhaps a more relaxed pace would have made the sometimes muddy scoring less prone to bombast.

A choir of brass and woodwinds in the slow movement bore a more than passing resemblance to Tannhäuser in its arching melodic contours and lush harmonies, yet Welser-Möst drew out the incipient composer’s voice with such conviction that matters hardly sounded as mere imitation. The kinetic, dancing Scherzo evidenced the composer’s Bohemian homeland with material that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Slavonic Dances, and the trio bore another Wagnerian stamp in its courtly echoes of Meistersinger. A high-octane rondo subject marked the finale, interlaced with a colorful palette of contrasting themes. While ultimately not an achievement on par with the composer’s later entries in the medium, it’s a work ripe with discovery, and all the more so given advocacy like this.

Welser-Möst’s 1993 debut with this orchestra included a collaboration with Bronfman in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, reprised this evening (also on that program was Schubert’s Third Symphony, which the conductor revisited to begin the current season). The introductory material was crisply articulated, making no mistake about the tragic overtones of this crown jewel of Mozart’s prodigious concerto output. The principal winds were in fine form, and Bronfman’s pianism was graceful and rippling, so much the opposite of the percussive Prokofiev one might more readily associate with this pianist. Still, Bronfman built to plenty of dramatic intensity when called for, especially in the extensive cadenza. The central Larghetto was a calming cantabile in its chamber-like dialogue between piano and orchestra, and the finale put Bronfman’s pianistic dexterity in counterpoint with the orchestra’s supple accompaniment, closing in dramatic flourish.

Janáček is a composer who resides in a rarefied, idiosyncratic sound world, yet he is an enigma which this conductor and orchestra have seemingly cracked – their performances of The Cunning Little Vixen continue to persist strongly in memory. The Sinfonietta, with nearly two dozen brass players making up the backbone of a massive orchestra, made for a commanding end to the evening. The opening fanfare was as arresting and attention grabbing as it gets, while the following Andante yielded a kaleidoscope of unusual timbres via a relentless orchestral virtuosity, with some particularly entrancing playing from the harp. The central Moderato served as a more lyrical interlude, but not without stentorian interjections from the low brass. A perky Scherzo countered before the finale, wherein the eventual resurgence of the opening fanfare closed the work in an uncompromising metallic sheen.