Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall – Franz Welser-Möst conducts George Walker & Schubert – Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider plays Szymanowski

George Walker
Sinfonia No.4 (Strands)
Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (violin)

The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Mös

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 1 June, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

In a program offering a trio of late works, the Cleveland Orchestra played all with great clarity, refinement, and subtlety, beginning with a riveting and luminous reading of George Walker’s concise but complex Sinfonia No. 4, nicknamed ‘Strands’ for the way its divergent melodies are woven together. Composed in 2012 in response to a commission to commemorate the composer’s ninetieth-birthday, the score with its unusually large percussion ensemble has a celebratory feel and displays a strong command of thematic construction and orchestration as brief fragments of Spirituals are superimposed over a melodic base line. In Franz Welser-Möst’s capable hands, the orchestra sounded right at home in Walker’s energetic and extroverted music.

Next came Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto. Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider delivered a technically accomplished, intensely expressive, and perfectly shaped performance of this exotic and exacting work from 1933. With his immaculate intonation, polished pianissimo and exquisite portamento he phrased the lengthy, mellifluous lines of the first part with unaffected lyricism and infused the folk rhythms of the second with an uninhibited and earthy vitality. But it was in the cadenza linking the two sections that his playing was at its most impressive and impassioned, as he dispatched its long and beautiful sequence of double-stops with discernable delight. He was well-supported by Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders, who never once overpowered him.

In Schubert’s Ninth the playing was always dignified and graceful. This was a performance replete with dramatic contrasts and scrupulous dynamics. Following an understated opening, the first movement was lively but easygoing and unexaggerated in its phrasing. In the second the high strings generated enormous heat before melting into an extraordinary softness, and the blended sound of the mellow woodwinds was wonderfully alluring in the quieter moments. The Scherzo was a masterpiece of charm as the brisk tempo kept things flowing and prevented all the repeats from sounding stale. The triumphant Finale was no less delightful, with the string sections giving their all. There were many outstanding solo contributions, but principal oboe Frank Rosenwein’s delicate phrasing and radiant tone made his the most consistently outstanding.

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