Manfred, Op.115 – Overture
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op.33 [original version]
Symphony No.4, FS76/Op.29 (The Inextinguishable)
Stephen Hough (piano)
Reviewed by: Frank Kuznik
Reviewed: 3 March, 2016
Venue: Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio
If there is such a thing as a Carl Nielsen specialist in the United States, it would be Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Along with other groundbreaking innovations he has brought to the orchestra, like a critically acclaimed Biennial focusing on new music, Gilbert has led a Nielsen recording effort comprising the six Symphonies and three Concertos. In a guest appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra, he showed why those recordings established new standards and helped revive Nielsen’s standing and reputation.
Gilbert comes to Severance Hall with a built-in advantage. He spent three years there in the mid-90s as assistant conductor, developing an intimate knowledge of the Cleveland Orchestra’s character and strengths. So it was not surprising that in the first of three appearances with this program Gilbert showed a masterful command of the sound and the material.
Without a score or a baton, he established his voice immediately with the Overture from Schumann’s Incidental Music for Byron’s Manfred. In contrast to the aristocratic Viennese style favored by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, the Cleveland Orchestra sounded energetic and dynamic with Gilbert, bursting with New World enthusiasm from the opening bars. If his reading of the piece was not particularly deep, it was strikingly expressive, with the passion in the music never overwhelming details like a single horn vibrato or the whisper finish. In balance and clarity, it was a study in how to get the maximum out of a relatively short, tense piece.
Dvořák’s Piano Concerto is an early work that is seldom performed, presumably because it pales compared to almost everything the composer wrote afterward. Nonetheless, it is a charming, lyrical piece, characteristically filled with engaging melodies and challenging solos that provide both musical and visual fireworks. Stephen Hough showed himself more than capable at the keyboard, fingers flying effortlessly through dazzling runs and with color imbued in every phrase. The emotional quality of Dvořák wasn’t quite there, though; at times it sounded like he was playing Liszt or Chopin, with their studied seriousness. Hough’s encore of Dvořák’s familiar Humoresque was more in keeping with the composer’s romantic qualities.
Gilbert was just the opposite, crafting a sound that at times was virtually identical to what one would hear from, say, the Czech Philharmonic. That particular blend of expression and craftsmanship is rare outside of Central Europe, offering a reminder that in the right hands, the Cleveland Orchestra can play almost anything. On this occasion the silken strings and golden horns were spot-on, with Gilbert’s up-tempo, almost aggressive pace adding fire. He and Hough brought the piece to a blazing finish that crackled with razor-sharp synchronicity.
From a conducting standpoint, Carl Nielsen’s ‘Inextinguishable’ Symphony seems like an exercise in running up and down the stairs: four contrasting movements, continuously played, rising in volume and intensity to about as loud as an orchestra can get, then dropping down to the murmur of a single instrument. This plays to one of Gilbert’s strengths. He is a master of dynamics, modulating the sound not just in accordance with the score, but to give the music a pulse, a living, breathing quality. It was irresistible here, especially with the vibrant colors and textures that Gilbert conjured.
As throughout the evening, even the most fortissimo passages never lost their clarity or balance, and the solo lines were uniformly pure and elegant. The assault at the end from the two sets of timpani was clear and controlled, less like dueling drums than the closing statement of a thrilling, authoritative interpretation.
Reunions of this order don’t come along very often. By any measure, this one was special.