Thursday evening was a decidedly E flat major affair at Severance Hall with The Cleveland Orchestra presenting a pair of works with little in common beyond sharing that rather regal key: Beethoven’s final piano concerto and Elgar’s final (completed) symphony. Perhaps more familiar as a violinist, the multi-faceted Nikolaj Znaider took the podium and proved a strong advocate in both the venerable Beethoven concerto and the much less trodden work of Elgar.

Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

Yefim Bronfman served as soloist in the Emperor Piano Concerto, a work which like so many of Beethoven’s others has become irrevocably associated with an epithet the composer never chose – this one being particularly absurd given Beethoven’s distaste for aristocracy, stately as the concerto may be. The opening cadenza-like flourishes were grandiose without resorting to pomposity, putting Bronfman’s virtuosity front and center from the onset. The accompaniment Znaider drew from the orchestra was one of supple phrasing and energetic playing, if perhaps a bit overzealous at times. Bronfman’s performance was both majestic and lyrical, boasting an impeccably sound technique that sailed through the fearsome trills and rapid scales. A triumphant moment at the movement’s midpoint saw some powerfully muscular playing from Bronfman in its imposing chords and octaves; at the other end of the spectrum was a particularly lovely moment wherein a rippling passage in the piano was gently augmented by the warmth of the horns.

The Adagio un poco mosso began with prayer-like strings in the distant key of B major that introduced the tender and songful part for piano. Beautiful as it may have been, it still felt somewhat rough-hewn with balance not always ideal and tempos a tad rushed. The closing rondo returned to the home key; in the transition between movements Beethoven achieved the impossible in making the two keys sound somehow inextricably related. The main theme galloped from the keyboard, and while one of the rondo’s sections was of dark pathos, exultation won the day. Near the end was a striking segment of almost Schubertian understatement with the orchestration distilled to the piano and timpani and matters frozen almost to a standstill, which served to make the final moments all the more dramatic. Bronfman was duly brought back for an encore in Debussy’s Clair de lune; the delicacy one wanted in the concerto’s slow movement was here in spades as the pianist brought to life this tableau of shimmering moonlight.

Both of Elgar’s symphonies are nearly an hour long, and while major contributions to the literature, are hardly staples outside the composer’s home country. The Symphony no. 2 in E flat major was completed in 1911, drawing on sketches dating back as far as 1903, and bore a dedication to Edward VII whom Elgar deeply admired. In many ways, the work is a farewell to an era with a sense of wistful nostalgia that pervades. Elgar rarely elected for textures of solo instruments; the dense score was awash with endless combinations of instruments and colors, with TCO accordingly sounding like a collage of chamber ensembles seamlessly stitched together. Znaider served as an enthusiastic and devoted champion of the work, having committed it all to memory.

An arching, widely-spaced theme of great nobility opened the extensive first movement, contrasted by a more graceful secondary subject largely in the strings. Clarinetist Afendi Yusuf was the standout of the lustrous woodwinds, and the movement’s long-form trajectory led to a triumphant ending. Cast in the relative minor, the slow movement was of a funereal melancholy, blossoming into long, lush melodies in the strings grounded by stentorian trombones. A section marked Nobilmente e semplice was particularly awe-inspiring, almost like as in the analogous movement of a Bruckner symphony. The ineffable spirit that makes “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations so memorable very much wandered through this movement as well. The subsequent rondo was almost jarring in its coquettishness, with brief germs of themes playfully passed around the orchestra and some of the most gregarious playing of the evening. Another exercise in large-scale sonata form, the finale was overtaken by a courtly theme, quintessentially Elgarian, and proceeded with dignified purposed towards the work’s serene ending, leaving Severance Hall with the final chord’s amber warmth.