Cleveland Orchestra/Hewitt/Jaervi

2004-07-20 / The Plain Dealer / Donald Rosenberg

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 1

The lineup of pieces that the Cleveland Orchestra is playing this summer at Blossom Music Center is largely conventional, with scant regard for the past century. Where, pray tell, has the “festive” aspect of the Blossom Festival gone?

At least the repertoire is comprised of great works, as the orchestra’s two programs over the weekend revealed. The concerts were notable in two other respects: the Cleveland Orchestra debuts of Paavo Jarvi, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, and pianist Angela Hewitt.

The weekend’s finest performance, in fact, came when Jarvi and Hewitt teamed Saturday for a vividly etched account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The Canadian pianist is best known as a superlative interpreter of Bach. But her Beethoven suggested that her artistry isn’t constrained by musical period.

Hewitt played the concerto with a keen ear for classical form, sonority and expressive weight. Every phrase received nuanced attention, and the fleet passages blended grace with purposeful intensity. In the slow movement, the pianist probed the music’s sublimity, while always making sure that lines were shaped as a series of coherent statements.

The technical ease with which Hewitt dispatched Beethoven’s challenges reached an apex in the first-movement cadenza, an elaborate discourse on various themes that was as unpredictable as it was compelling. Jarvi proved a first-rate collaborator, attentive both to stylistic niceties and instrumental detail.

Hearing the Cleveland Orchestra play Beethoven or anything else is a special experience. Indeed, under Jarvi, the orchestra traveled radiantly over the weekend through works by six composers, though the performances varied widely in character and color.

In every piece, Jarvi gave thoughtful, sensitive consideration to the music’s content. His conducting was solid and clear, if somewhat generic, with a penchant for extreme tempos and emphatic gestures.

Smetana’s “The Moldau” fared fluidly in Jarvi’s hands Saturday. The river’s ebb and flow were conveyed with smooth assurance, and the conductor achieved fine contrast between lyricism and majesty. Conversely, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, which ended the program, had less granitic grandeur than the score implies. Jarvi was alert and energetic, sometimes too much so, and there was little requisite sweep or urgency.

Sunday’s short feast of music by Beethoven, Mozart, Kodaly and Stravinsky kept Jarvi and the orchestra switching stylistic gears on a dime. In Beethoven’s “Fidelio” overture, the conductor opted for a dangerously slow introduction and ensuing briskness that lacked cumulative tension.

Soon after the next piece, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, a friend in the audience deemed the performance “pleasant,” precisely observing why Jarvi’s approach hadn’t worked. Here was Mozart’s most tragic symphony caught short of dark intensity. Tempos often were so quick that the expressive force was reduced.

Still, Jarvi drew bountiful Mozartean refinement from the orchestra, as well as glowing solo work in Kodaly’s “Dances From Galanta” from a host of wind and brass players. The score’s folkloric affection and gusto burst from the stage, a few eccentric tempos aside.

Stravinsky’s 1919 version of “The Firebird” suite ended the weekend in a reading that blended orchestral opulence with an odd mix of frantic and stretched activity.