The Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst at the Kravis Center – Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony & Oliver Knussen’s Cleveland Pictures; Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider plays Bruch

Cleveland Pictures

Violin Concerto in No.1 in G-minor, Op.26

Symphony No.5 in B-flat, Op.100

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (violin)

The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 29 January, 2024
Venue: Dreyfoos Concert Hall, Kravis Center, West Palm Beach, Florida

Oliver Knussen’s Cleveland Pictures was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1997, but only four of its intended eight sections, each inspired by a work in the Cleveland Museum of Art,

were complete at the composer’s death in 2018. This performance of the four completed sections displayed a wide range of colors, including a large variety of percussion timbres. The mostly dark and ponderous depiction of Rodin’s statue The Thinker’ featured Amy Zoloto’s outstanding bass clarinet solos, with a sudden crashing chord suggesting a ‘Eureka!’ moment. A bouncy tune over pizzicato strings, with contributions from muted trumpet, oboe and chattering castanets, represented the jester Calabazas portrayed in a Velázquez painting, and lush strings and a quartet of flutes were prominent in Knussen’s take on Goya’s portrait of Saint Ambrose. Last was ‘Two Clocks’, inspired by a Tiffany grandfather clock and a jeweled Fabergé timepiece modeled after the Kremlin’s Taynitskaya Tower. The music ticked away metronomically, stopping suddenly, as a clock will if not rewound.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider gave Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto a genial performance, with Franz Welser-Möst generally content to let the solo instrument sing out over the orchestra, though the ensemble was quite forceful in tutti passages. In the rhapsodic middle movement Szeps-Znaider evoked a magnificent tone from his 1741 ‘Kreisler’ Guarnerius del Gesu, and in the Gypsy-influenced Finale he set a dazzling pace, violin figures alternating with grandiose orchestral passages and finally accelerating to a flashy coda.

After intermission, Welser-Möst led an exciting performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Composed at a turning point in World War II as the Allies invaded Normandy and the Soviet army began successful westward offensives, the work reflects the composer’s optimism and his aim of “glorifying the human spirit.” This outlook finds expression in the nobility of the melodic winds and strings in the Andante, as well as in the movement’s triumphant climax, with tam-tam and cymbals powerfully combining. The highlights of the performance, however, were in the witty Scherzo and Allegro giocoso Finale. Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet took center stage in the former with a rollicking tune and was also prominent along with the violas in the contrasting Trio section. Between the faster-tempo movements, the Adagio projected an air of mystery as persistent triple-meter chords pulsated until the music faded away. Welser-Möst brought out the Finale’s continuous high spirits, the music galloping brightly ahead.

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