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Cleveland Orchestra heats up Severance Hall on snowy night with Beethoven, Elgar (review)

March 2, 2018 GMT

Cleveland Orchestra heats up Severance Hall on snowy night with Beethoven, Elgar (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The contrast between outdoors and in could not have been greater.

Thursday night, just as a snowstorm was settling in for the evening over a waterlogged Northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Orchestra and guest conductor Nikolaj Znaider serenaded a small but hearty crowd at Severance Hall with two warm, extroverted works in the sunny key of E-Flat Major. Outside, it was the dead of winter. Indoors, it was July.

So bright and engaging were the performances, in fact, it was easy for a listener to shut out thoughts of the coming miserable drive home.

Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto packs enough heat to melt just about any heart, under any conditions, and Thursday night was no exception. With pianist Yefim Bronfman at the keyboard, the work easily managed to transport patrons to a place far, far away.

On the short list of pianists best suited to the “Emperor,” Bronfman is surely at or near the top. A favorite of the Cleveland Orchestra and audiences alike, he possesses that rare combination of power and delicacy. In the concerto Thursday, he was as comfortable calling down heavy thunder as he was spinning the finest, most ethereal of musical silk.

He even managed to surprise, to catch even experienced listeners slightly off guard in the famous leap into the finale. The excitement didn’t wane, either. What followed was a tour de force, a Rondo that swung wildly between unbridled zeal and ultimate refinement, all the way down to the last measures, when even the faintest of taps on the timpani made a deep impression.

The peak in terms of refinement, though, came in the Adagio, one of the most radiant and consoling movements in all of music. Bronfman, to put it briefly, nailed it, delivering what one hopes is the soundtrack of heaven. No less captivating was Bronfman’s encore, a supremely tender account of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”

Transcendent moments also abounded in Elgar’s Symphony No. 2. Znaider may be best known as a violinist, but judging by the commitment, affection, and insight he evinced as a conductor Thursday, working without a score, it’s not difficult to imagine him soon as a renowned interpreter of Elgar.

Elgar Two is not an easy work to bring off. It’s long, dense, and often restless.

None of this seemed to faze Znaider, however. Throughout the bustling opening Allegro he supplied a clear sense of direction and sustained a high level of exuberance and animation.

Similar story in the brief Rondo and sweeping Finale. Both movements Znaider approached as orchestral showcases, opportunities to display and revel in Cleveland’s multi-faceted virtuosity. He also took them as celebrations of Elgar, chances to bask in the composer’s unique and endless capacity for invention, all the way to the symphony’s final measures, a sublime expression of calm acceptance.

The real world did manage to intrude at least once Thursday, in the form of a cell phone at the start of the symphony’s eloquent second movement.

Happily, Znaider and the orchestra didn’t allow this to faze them, either. Indeed, they seemed not to hear it, and went on to give a notably spacious, lyrical, and wholly focused performance defined by a hard-hitting peak and a coda as luminous as the sun hopefully destined to reappear soon.


Cleveland Orchestra

What: Nikolaj Znaider conducts Beethoven and Elgar.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 3 and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 4.

Where: Severance Hall, 11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

Tickets: $21-$165. Go to clevelandorchestra.com or call 216-231-1111.