In all, a winning combination
Franz Welser-Most has a knack for putting together absorbing and enchanting musical combinations. The enchantment factor was especially high in Severance Hall last night, when Welser-Most led the Cleveland Orchestra in three French works of narrative persuasion and a Mozart piano concerto that reintroduced a master to the Cleveland audience.
The pianist was Ivan Moravec, the Czech-born artist who made his U.S. debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1964 under George Szell. Moravec then waited until 1994 to perform again with the orchestra, this time at Blossom Music Center. His absence from Severance has been a shame, but at least it's over.
Moravec's vehicle last night was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, among the darker works the composer wrote in the genre. It is quite the opposite side of the concerto coin from the Piano Concerto No. 17 that Claude Frank played so superbly Monday with the Israel Camerata at Akron's E. J. Thomas Hall.
Like Frank, Moravec is a musician interested in conveying what the composer set down - nothing more, nothing less. Yet while Moravec allowed Mozart to sound like Mozart, he had individual things to contribute. His was a performance of aristocratic suavity, with poised phrasing and transparent textures that cast the tragic, turbulent material in pristine focus.
Moravec employed subtleties of touch and dynamics to convey Mozart's emotional wonders. The vehement passages were boldly sculpted; the tender writing was limned with graceful beauty. His view of the cadenzas was vivid, full of character and tempestuous, within the bounds of impeccable classical taste.
Welser-Most, who conducted Mozart's Symphony No. 38 last week, proved even more vibrant and pointed a Mozartean in the concerto. He achieved fine balances in the dialogues between soloist and orchestra and established ensemble finesse at no loss of momentum or spontaneity. It was a special experience.
The Austrian conductor made himself completely at home in the French fare. He began with Darius Milhaud's ballet "The Creation of the World," which displays the composer's admiration for American jazz in a scenario that often cooks with Gallic gas. Welser-Most and the chamber ensemble walked a neat tight rope between the score's austere and swinging images. The playing was alluring, pungent and attentive to Milhaud's colorful sound world.
The ballet motif continued with Ravel's "Mother Goose," usually heard in the suite version, but here offered complete. The extra music amounts to two sections preceding the familiar music and some connective episodes. Ravel is a wizard at evoking atmospheres of fantasy and whimsy. This score abounds in opportunities for conductor and orchestra to bask In a series of mesmerizing tales.
Welser-Most and the Cleveland musicians did exactly that. The conductor maintained an elastic sense of line, honored the lilting and serene landscapes and luxuriated in the wondrous sonorities. Much of the characterization in "Mother Goose" is entrusted to solo instruments, and the playing couldn't have been more delightful. Associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples was rapturous and silken in every phrase she touched.
The night's rousing moments came in Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which anyone who hasn't been living under a rock will recall as the battle between Mickey Mouse and brooms in Disney's "Fantasia." Welser-Most turned it into a wild dance, with bassoons bursting with woodsy energy and the orchestra bubbling with gleeful rhythmic thrust. The mystery was there, as was the zest. Welser-Most and the Cleveland players engaged in the most rollicking form of sonic sorcery.