Cleveland Orchestra, Szeps-Znaider bring refinement and mystery to Carnegie

Thu Jun 02, 2022 at 1:58 pm
Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider performed Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The unifying quality of the Cleveland Orchestra’s concert Wednesday night in Carnegie Hall was just that—quality, meaning the musicianship from this excellent orchestra. Music director Franz Welser-Möst’s program collected pieces from three different eras and locations, played with typical skill and also an amount of sheer force one does not always hear from this refined ensemble.

George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 4, “Strands,” served as a quasi-overture, followed by Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with soloist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider. After intermission, the orchestra finished with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, the” Great.”

Early and late romanticism from Europe were prefaced by classic American modernism from this century: Walker’s Sinfonia is from 2012, four years before the composer’s death. It displays Walker’s virtues of intelligence, subtlety within extroverted language, energy, and craft and is very much in the flavor of the great post-WWII American symphonists, like William Schuman and Peter Mennin. The orchestra sounded immediately at home in Walker’s refined, but rugged language, blunt colors and clarity of purpose. 

Walker’s music has the quality of being serious but not self-serious, with a feeling of deep expression without sentimental manipulation—even here with the moving spiritual “There Is A Balm In Gilead” secreted like a code at the foundation of the piece. This was a straightforward and satisfying performance.

The Szymanowski concerto was equally as accomplished and deep with Szeps-Znaider delivering a technically and expressively fine performance. He modulated his tonal coloring skillfully as he followed Szymanowski’s line from low to high range, and back, drawing a gritty sound out of his G string. There was a beguiling large-scale shape and direction in this performance, balanced off the bridging cadenza between the two sections. The composition gradually splits the soloist off from the orchestra, as if following a path into a metaphysical region while the orchestra stays in the distance. Inside that, Szeps-Znaider seemed to find something profound in the cadenza. His playing was intensely soulful, and his series of double-stops were so beautiful that the sound itself signified something important.

Coming out of that extended solo, Szeps-Znaider seemed transformed, as if he had found some secret path through the music. His playing invited us to follow, even as each step seems to have a hermetic meaning, something only he could understand. This kind of subtlety is infrequent on the big concert stage, and it was enthralling.

Schubert’s symphony was stately and elegant, with a judicious serrated edge to express the tragedy underneath so much of Schubert’s late compositions. Welser-Möst drew an expressive contrast between an understated opening and an enormous orchestral tutti, followed by careful shaping of dynamics throughout the four movements.

The orchestra was at its best in both the quietest and loudest music. The blend of instrumental sound, especially the mellow woodwinds, was tremendously beautiful at low dynamics, and in the stormiest passages of the second and final movements, the overall sound seemed close to splitting its seams, striving for something beyond expression. Mysteriously, the Allegro vivace trio in the Scherzo lost a noticeable amount of energy, but that was the only mar in a grand and grounded interpretation.

The New York Philharmonic and violinist Hilary Hahn play Sarah Kirkland Snider, Barber, and Mahler, 8 p.m. Friday, June 10

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