Herbert Blomstedt, Garrick Ohlsson drive Cleveland Orchestra to higher heights

Garrick Ohlsson
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

It's safe to say the Cleveland Orchestra gives its all to every performance. Sometimes, though, it gives a little more. Or so it seemed Thursday night at Severance Hall. Reunited with conductor Herbert Blomstedt and pianist Garrick Ohlsson, the orchestra showed its affection by going the extra mile in works by Brahms, Hindemith, and Beethoven. Louds were louder, accents were sharper, and everything else came across in crisp definition.

The featured attraction with Blomstedt, the former music director of the San Francisco Symphony and major orchestras in Europe, was Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" Symphony. All too often, Hindemith's music falls flat, the victim of dry, mechanical readings. Here, it did just the opposite, soaring to great heights in a vibrant, sumptuous performance readily evocative of scenes from the Renaissance altarpiece that inspired the music.

Blomstedt, conducting from memory, was firmly in command, heightening the score's intrinsic contrasts and teasing long, unbroken melodies out of bustling passage-work. If the first movement, "Angelic Concert," is a vision of heaven, Blomstedt made sure to portray a radiant and active locale. But the real showpiece was the finale, "Temptation of St. Anthony." Vivid in the utmost, the performance under Blomstedt brought the gruesome image of a saint being tormented by his vices to dynamic life.

Thrust-like accents and precipitous drops at the ends of phrases suggested incessant prodding. Meanwhile, the strings went above and beyond in their effort to personify Anthony's turbulent emotional states, and the brass near the score's end left no doubt of the character's victory. As a prelude to his Hindemith experience, Blomstedt offered a small but robust dose of Brahms. In his hands, with the orchestra at his fingertips, the "Academic Festival Overture" was a fully self-contained landscape, complete with high drama and expansive, lyrical interludes.

The second half of the concert was a glorious instance of addition by subtraction. As the soloist in Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, Ohlsson gave more by giving less, and the orchestra under Blomstedt responded with some of its subtlest, most nuanced accompaniment in recent memory. Ohlsson himself was a model of imperial control. No surprise there. What stood out Thursday was the lightness, the velvety smoothness of his touch. His version of pianissimo in the Allegro was exquisite, his left hand reverberating in perfect synch with the string basses. It took a couple of wrong notes to remember he's not perfect.

Many artists, too, are wont to go overboard with sentimentality in the Adagio. Ohlsson, though, deftly avoided such excess, observing a nimble tempo and supplying abundant optimism.

The crown jewel was the final Rondo. Enriching the movement's simple structure, Ohlsson adopted a narrative of continuous, swelling excitement, in which each appearance of the theme was springier the last. Like the orchestra, he just kept digging deeper.