Elegance of Steel, Elegance of a Flower

02.04.05
Cleveland Orchestra
The New York Times

It has been instructive to hear the Cleveland Orchestra at work in Carnegie Hall with the sound of James Levine's Met Orchestra still fresh in the ears. The Clevelanders will have played four times here this week, the Met players once and on the same stage. The same adjectives and nouns apply to both, but the same words end up not meaning the same things.

With its young conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, and the pianist Radu Lupu there to negotiate all five Beethoven concertos, the Cleveland made one reconsider the term elegance. For these two orchestras are elegant in different ways. Mr. Levine over the years has created a kind of wondrous paradox: a sound that is delicate without being fragile and a solidity that the ear can see straight through.

Listening to the Cleveland's fearsome yet beautifully articulated assault on the Shostakovich 11th Symphony on Tuesday evoked an image of beauty edged with steel. There is something of winter in this sound. The Cleveland's heartfelt determination to be true to the music in front of it takes on almost a moral tone. It would require a good wine writer to best describe the Met Orchestra, which is, in any case, of a different season, even floral in its elegance. I wonder if New Yorkers know what an exceptional week for symphonic music they have just been neighbors to.

Mr. Lupu is a compatible companion for Mr. Welser-Möst and his musicians. The physical presence alone admonishes the theatrics of young virtuosos trying to wave beautiful music into being with a flailing arm or a beseeching glance toward heaven. Mr. Lupu reclines in a straightback chair. For all his bodily demonstrativeness, he could be dealing a hand of bridge. Yet hear the extraordinary control of loud and soft at many levels. When Beethoven gets complicated, one hears it all. The Cleveland Orchestra is the same.

With a little rearranging of the numbers, the five Beethoven concertos create a map leading from 18th- to 19th-century sensibilities. The pivot is the C-Major Concerto played on Tuesday, marked as No. 1 but actually written after No. 2. The latter, in B-Flat and played on Wednesday, is a lovely little declaration of all that Haydn had stood for. The orchestration is modest, letting the virtuoso solo writing shine. Beethoven, an ambitious young pianist, wrote it for himself.

The C-Major, my enduring favorite of the five, is what the performer makes of it: either a last long breath of the Classical age or a step into Romanticism. The slow movement can be a lovely lyrical thing, as Mr. Lupu made it, or it can be something large and Byronic. This is a pianist whose near genetic elegance leans back toward fastidiousness and understatement and away from soul-baring outburst.

Mr. Lupu hears the finale of the C-Major faster than I think it comfortably works, but I admired his honest tempo in the last movement of the C-minor Concerto on Wednesday: slower, less opportunistically dramatic but true to the steady heartbeat of the music later on. Wednesday also brought Roy Harris's Third Symphony. This is signature American music from a relatively innocent time: clean, liquid and washed clear of any European past or t