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Cellist surmounts the hurdles in Shostakovich concerto with CityMusic Cleveland
By Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer - February 03, 2010, 10:00PM

Any soloist who hopes to survive the rigors of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 must possess equal amounts of fortitude and eloquence. Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom the work was written, claimed those qualities in abundance.

And so does Matt Haimovitz, who is playing the concerto this week with CityMusic Cleveland under guest conductor Danail Rachev. At Wednesday’s opening performance at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Haimovitz was a commanding protagonist who feared no expressive or technical obstacle.

The work has the familiar emotional stamps of the best Shostakovich scores. It is at once acerbic, mournful and defiant – and catapulted by a motive based on the composer’s initials. The cello is a thrusting, yearning hero who is required to penetrate perpetual-motion passages and emerge from an extended cadenza of mounting anguish.

Haimovitz approached the piece with a blend of ferocity and tenderness that went to the core of the music. He became a haunted soul in the second movement’s disembodied harmonics against strings, celesta and clarinet.

In his hands, the cadenza was a tour de force leading to a finale marked by vibrant, folksy intensity. He had fine collaborators in CityMusic and Rachev, who kept rhythms simmering, articulations pointed and desolate episodes at a hush. John Boden contributed bold horn solos.

Rachev, music director of the Eugene Symphony in Oregon and assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, flanked Shostakovich with works by Schubert and Mozart. In both, the CityMusic strings were meticulous, the winds fragrant and the timpani crystal clear.

Schubert’s Six German Dances, originally for piano, were offered in an orchestral arrangement by Webern, who knew how to distill musical ideas and sonorities to their essence. The performance was something of a Schubertian lovefest, with Rachev shaping the dance forms with flexible affection and the orchestra mustering plentiful elegance.

There also was much to admire in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, though Rachev sometimes undermined the work’s urgency. The Menuetto was far too propulsive for the lazy trio that followed, and the finale needed more of a kick to exert its distinctive turbulence.

Whatever the interpretive choices, the orchestra responded to their guest’s leadership with playing of subtle and cohesive allure.