It’s easy to write off Beethoven's Fifth as overly familiar. But this concert proved that with the right backdrop and, of course, the right musicians, the symphony remains irresistible. Paired with the Britten’s early Sinfonia da Requiem, Beethoven’s “Fateful Fifth” sounded unexpectedly fresh. It was an inspired choice of programming.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd

The Sinfonia opens with a somber drumbeat. Pianist Joela Jones struck a series of poignant pulsations, as the concert hall reverberated with Britten’s obsessive, syncopated theme. Like the recurring motif stated at the outset of Beethoven’s symphony, Britten’s potent musical seed germinated into a living organism. Conductor Jaap van Zweden gesticulated like a mad scientist as he coaxed the Cleveland players to bubble over with sound.

The musicians came spring-loaded to the Dies irae fanfare, attacking it with a keen precision. Percussion, brass, and strings played in lockstep; the flute tremolos were as tight as, well, the snare drum rolls. Saxophonist Jeffrey Zehngut emerged from the din with a slow, melodic figure and beguiling timbre. As the Dance of Death careened toward its climax, staccato bursts of sound evoked gunfire and bombs. The staggered bowings of the violins rippled delightfully through the orchestra, making visible the rhythmic clarity created by maestro van Zweden.

Britten’s Sinfonia has a most curious origin. Not to be confused with his later (and better-known) War Requiem, it was composed when Britten was only 26 years old, shortly after he had relocated to the United States to protest his native Britain’s involvement in the Second World War. The Sinfonia was ostensibly commissioned by the Japanese government to mark the Chrysanthemum Throne’s 2,600th anniversary. However, pre-concert lecturer David J. Rothenberg clarified that Britten had already been at work on the piece when the Japanese hired him (working under a deadline of only three weeks) – a crucial insight as to why the composer delivered a Catholic Requiem for such an occasion. Britten’s patrons rejected the Sinfonia for obvious reasons, and it was later premiered by the New York Philharmonic in March of 1941, just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Britten’s pacifist tendencies are most apparent in the Sinfonia’s final movement, the Requiem aeternam. The quiet, ponderous melody seems to weep for the devastation war had wreaked in Europe. In 1942, at the age of 27, Britten said, “The whole of my life has been devoted to creation, and I cannot take part in acts of destruction.”

An even younger musician than the composer of the Sinfonia was featured next. At 25, pianist Daniil Trifonov possesses rare wisdom (not to mention, a slew of soloist credits) that belie his age. This was his third solo appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra – and he is no stranger to the city, having studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music a few years ago. The transition to the sunnier sound universe of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major felt surprisingly natural, thanks in large part to the instinctive musicality of the orchestra. The piece seemed bred in the bone, obviating any real need for a conductor, besides concertmaster Peter Otto.

For his part, Mr Trifonov brought a plush, intimate tone to the concerto’s understated first movement. As he transitioned to the work’s signature Adagio, Mr Trifonov’s affinity for the Romantics was as clear as Mozart’s anticipation of them. A bit more playfulness would have improved the final movement, but, overall, the presentation was strong. Trifonov is an unpretentious musician with a poet’s soul. He opted for a gracious dialogue with the ensemble, rather than a battle.

Ever since Jaap van Zweden was named the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, the spotlight around him has been larger than usual. The 55-year-old Dutch conductor, with his reputation for meticulously controlled explosions in big orchestral works, was an excellent fit for this program. In particular, he gave a lucid account of Beethoven’s looming masterpiece.

Throughout the entire concert, my ear was drawn to the exquisite, low strings, replete with eight double basses. This was particularly true in the second movement of Beethoven, when the violas handed a graceful, stepwise melody to the violins, which bloomed into an enveloping march. Yet, any martial qualities were second-guessed by spectral string variations that recalled the earlier Britten.  

During the third and final movements of the Beethoven, the orchestra achieved transcendence. Maestro van Zweden’s exaggerated gestures produced a thrilling forward momentum, which was coupled to a jaw-dropping rhythmic exactitude. From the muted pizzicato through the compressed themes of the final coda, this was a cathartic explosion of musical ideas and an incredible night at the symphony.