Cleveland Orchestra raises the roof with rare Prokofiev

By Lawrence Budmen

Franz Welser-Most led the Cleveland Orchetra in music of Prokofiev and Brahms Friday night at the Arsht Center.

Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Prokofiev and Brahms Friday night at the Arsht Center. Photo: Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images

The dual musical personalities of Sergei Prokofiev were on display at the Cleveland Orchestra’s concert Friday night at the Arsht Center, as Franz Welser-Möst led two of the Russian composer’s rarely heard works.

Prokofiev began his creative life as a fierce modernist, creating scores replete with clanging dissonance and harmonic ambiguity. During his sojourn in Paris during the 1920’s he began to display a more conservative, populist side which became more pronounced after his return to the Soviet Union.

Prokofiev’s Divertissment is largely based on a 1924 score for an unproduced ballet Trapeze. The work’s dance origins are quite obvious, the four movement work crafted with considerable wit. Highly rhythmic Russian melodies contrast with ear-catching themes from the winds and strings in the style of the composer’s later ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. An entertaining opener, the work was a fine showcase for the entire ensemble.

The program concluded with the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, one of Prokofiev’s most boldly original creations. Utilizing motifs from the opera The Fiery Angel (which Prokofiev never saw produced in his lifetime), the symphony channels the opera’s themes of unfulfilled love and possession by the forces of the underworld. In previous Miami concerts, Welser-Möst has demonstrated a real affinity for the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, Prokofiev’s contemporary, and he was no less compelling and illuminating as a guide through the clashing sound waves and intricate rhythmic twists that dot Prokofiev’s symphony.

In the opening Moderato movement, Welser-Möst skillfully coordinated the woodwind shrieks and brief moments of repose, imbuing the quieter sections with an undertow of tension. Welser-Möst brought out the sardonic twist in the brasses’ mock circus band and highlighted the writing for two harps, adding color to the bleak instrumental palette.

The sweet tone and fine balance of the wind section shone impressively in the modal orthodox chant of the Andante, set against a rocking pulse. Here Welser-Möst unleashed the ensemble’s lustrous sonority. By contrast the ferocity of the orchestra’s voltage in the scherzo conveyed the movement’s demonic quality, a savage brew that sounded like psychedelic Liszt. The violin section exhibited striking virtuosity when executing the wild discordant leaps. The strangely pensive theme that pervaded the central episode seemed to come from a movie soundtrack, something Prokofiev excelled at.

The grim march of the finale, almost like a death knell, set the full ensemble ablaze. Indeed this performance may have set a new decibel level for unamplified music in the Knight Concert Hall. With blaring brass, pounding timpani and chimes, the movement’s climax was overwhelming.

The audience’s rousing response to this modernist symphony was ample evidence that the Clevelanders need not stick to familiar programming as the orchestra looks forward to its second decade of residencies in Miami.

Between Prokofiev, light and dark, the orchestra’s concertmaster William Preucil and principal cellist Mark Kosower were the soloists in Brahms’ Double Concerto. Kosower delivered the initial cadenza with a large, warmly colored tone. While Preucil’s sonority was smaller, he blended well with Kosower. Throughout the concerto, both players displayed their wide experience as chamber players, phrasing spaciously in perfect unison.

The Andante emerged unusually intimate and directly stated while the final Vivace was strongly accented. Welser-Möst is a practiced hand at Brahms and he firmly traced Brahms’ instrumental details while keeping a firm rein on the orchestra.

The Cleveland Orchestra repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.

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Sat Jan 30, 2016
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