Cleveland Orchestra shines darkly in Scandinavian program

By David Fleshler

Nikolaj Znaider performed Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra Thursday night at the Arsht Center.

The Cleveland Orchestra brought music from Scandinavia to the Arsht Center in Miami Thursday, performing a neglected concerto and one of the region’s most popular symphonies.

The former was the Violin Concerto of Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s greatest composer. The work’s 1912 premiere came just eight years after the premiere of its Nordic cousin, the Violin Concerto of Sibelius. But while the Sibelius concerto went on to become one of the most popular works in the repertoire, Nielsen’s was relegated to the status of occasional concert curiosity. A program note said the Cleveland Orchestra has performed it just once previously.

With his rock-solid technique, big tone and extroverted style, soloist Nikolaj Znaider made the strongest possible case for the work. Like Nielsen himself, who lived from 1865 to 1931, the concerto straddles the sensibilities of two centuries, at times speaking with a Romantic sweep that would have been at a home in an 1880s concert hall, at other times taking on a bumptious, astringent tone that could have come from the pen of Prokofiev.

Is it a neglected masterpiece? No. For its length Nielsen’s concerto doesn’t have the invention, drama or depth of its better-known counterparts. But it’s full of what a violin concerto should have – memorable melodies, virtuoso excitement (with not one, but three cadenzas), and a heroic role for the soloist.

From its declamatory opening, grand gestures for violin over long-held notes in the winds, Znaider gave a committed, dramatic performance. With his masterly technique, the Danish violinist sizzled through the runs, doubled notes and other difficulties. He played with a singing tone in the melodies of the first movement. In the second movement, in which high notes of the violin are played in a dialogue with the cellos, he played with an intimacy that brought out the inwardness and introspection of the concerto’s most searching pages. In the second half of the second movement, which served as a de facto last movement, he brought grace and wit to the sardonic melody.

Under conductor Franz Welser-Möst, the orchestra gave a sensitive, nuanced accompaniment, delivering in its big moments, such as the entrance of the orchestra with the main theme after the cadenza—a passage reminiscent of its counterpart in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and one of the work’s great moments. The orchestra deserves credit for programming this work, rather than the overplayed violin concertos of Tchaikovsky, Bruch, Mendelssohn and the rest.

Much better known was the second work on the program, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.

With its imaginative orchestration, stirring melodies and dramatic arc, this is the sort of work in which an orchestra of Cleveland’s caliber excels. Welser-Möst finely calibrated the orchestra’s power, restraining climaxes as the symphony wavered between major and minor, darkness and light, to the very end. In the first movement, he emphasized its turbulence rather than its weight, taking passages such as the minor chords in winds and brass over running notes in the strings, in a manner that emphasized their energy and urgency. Although the performance didn’t lack for power, Welser-Möst went in for a less triumphal ending than other conductors, which seemed in keeping with the dark chords that shadow the work to the end.

Interpretive nuances aside, the Cleveland Orchestra is still the Cleveland Orchestra. There was the sheer aural pleasure of hearing Sibelius’ melodies, orchestration and drama played by musicians at the tops of their game. Great passages abounded: the evocative trumpet and flute solos over rustling strings in the second movement, the violins singing at the top of their register as the theme returns in the finale, the bright, weighted brass as the last movement gains power and momentum, and the richness and sensitive phrasing of the winds throughout.

The Cleveland Orchestra will repeat the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.; 305-949-6722

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Fri Feb 3, 2017
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